March 14, 2019

From NASA to the Farm

Director Profile

Neill Callis

Sales & General Management

Turlock Fruit Company

Turlock, CA

Director Since 2019 | Member Since 1944



New Western Growers Board Member Neill Callis isn’t a rocket scientist, but he rubbed shoulders with plenty of them during a 17-year career at NASA prior to joining Turlock Fruit Company a half a dozen years ago.

Callis’ story begins on the East Coast, where he was raised, educated and began his career at the Universities Space Research Association, a longtime National Aeronautics and Space Administration contractor. He grew up in Roanoke, VA, where his dad enjoyed a 27-year career with the Kroger Company in store operations. Both of his parents hailed from North Carolina, which is where the family spent many summer vacations and where Neill went off to college. He graduated from Elon University in 1997 with a degree in political science and an interest in working on Capitol Hill in some capacity. But the young man exhibited some economic savvy and decided to join NASA as a systems engineer, which had a brighter future than becoming an overworked and underpaid congressional staffer.

“I worked in Washington D.C. for six years before I had the opportunity to transfer to the Bay Area in 2003,” he said.

That proved to be another fortuitous decision as it was at NASA’s Universities Ames Research Center in Mountain View (about an hour south of San Francisco) where Neill met Hilary Smith, granddaughter of Don Smith, daughter of Steve Smith…and great granddaughter of the legendary Cantaloupe Smith, who started Turlock Fruit a century ago in 1918. “Hilary and I worked together on the SOFIA Mission for 10 years,” Neill said, explaining that the mission uses an airborne telescope mounted on a Boeing 747 to take pictures of the outer reaches of the universe. “Three to five times a week, the telescope uses infrared technology, 44,000 feet in the air to study the origins of the universe. It does phenomenal science,” he said, noting that SOFIA is an acronym for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

Callis reiterated that he was not a scientist but rather a project manager and a systems engineer that processed the data and worked on the design of the project. Hilary also worked in the operations end of the effort becoming a project manager in her own right.

And most importantly, Hilary and Neill clicked personally. They were married in 2006 and welcomed their first child into the world, Daniel, in 2011. Since then, in 2014, daughter Elin joined the family pod. But it was Daniel’s birth that had Hilary and Neill considering options for a different life. Living in San Francisco was great for a young couple, but with a family to think about and traffic congestion becoming more of a problem, the two of them started to explore other potential work sites around the country.

“We were looking for an exit,” said Neill. “Out of the blue, my father-in-law (Steve Smith) asked me if I’d consider joining the family farming operation. And so I did consider it. I am a methodical thinker. I analyzed the opportunity from every angle.”

In 2012, just as the Jensen Farms’ Listeria outbreak put cantaloupes in a tailspin, Neill began what he calls “an internship” at the sales office of Turlock Fruit Co. His analysis convinced him that the move looked good on paper. The internship was the last step to make sure he melded well with the other team members and the day-to-day activity was to his liking. The Jensen debacle aside, he determined it would be a good move for both him and his family.

At that point, and still today, the management team consisted of Don, Steve and Steve’s son Alec, a graduate of Yale, who loves the production side of the business. Neill’s forte is in helping run the business side of the entity, with a strong emphasis in packing, cooling, shipping and sales. He said Turlock Fruit is of such a size that it’s too large to run itself but it’s small enough that Neill has a diversified job description. During the cantaloupe season, he’s on the sales desk in the morning and coordinates production in the packing plant in the afternoons. During the spring asparagus season, which was just getting underway at the time of this interview, Neill serves as general manager of the asparagus packing operation. He also noted that the company is currently centralizing operations at its Firebaugh plant and he is heavily involved in that.

As a Western Growers board member, Callis is part of a group of five relatively new members that have graduated from the Western Growers Future Volunteer Leaders Program over the last several years. He said the group does represent a generational shift that is occurring in the industry but to his observation it is a seamless shift as far as the Western Growers Board is concerned. He said each board member has accepted him with open arms and his thoughts and viewpoints appear to be accepted as well as any others. He follows a long line of the family tree that has served Western Growers, with each of the preceding generations serving multiple stints on the board. In fact, Don Smith still holds the record as the youngest chairman of the board in the history of the association.

“Steve encouraged me to apply for the Future Volunteer Leaders Program, which I participated in from 2014 to 2016 as part of Class 3,” Neill said. “I loved every minute of it. It was inside baseball.”

When he had a chance to join the board, Neill calls it a “no brainer. As long as I can remember, Steve was talking about Western Growers and what a great organization it is.”

As this conversation was taking place, it appeared as if the government shutdown would end soon (and it did the next day). “I am hoping we can get something done on immigration reform now,” he said. “Sometimes it takes an unpopular actor to get something going and it’s possible our current situation can be the catalyst for change.”

Toward the future, Callis is optimistic that four-generation-old Turlock Fruit will be able to sustain the fifth generation. But he admits, changes are inevitable. “We are getting ready to start our California asparagus deal. California used to have 40,000 acres and now it only has 2,000 and 500 of them are ours. I am a realist and there are very specific factors not in our favor.”

On the other hand, he said Turlock Fruit first and foremost is a melon grower and shipper and “from the end of June to the end of September, there is no better place in the world to grow melons than right out here. We have the best melons there are and I think you can continue to be a seasonal shipper when you have that advantage.”

Along with the other members of the fourth generation of the Smith family, Callis is poised to lead the company down the road, but he noted that both the second and third generations are still going strong. Don Smith appears to have no interest in slowing down and Neill said Steve is cut from much the same cloth with the same commitment to the company and the industry that his father has exhibited in his 80+ years.

As far as his own family is concerned, Neill said the move to the Central Valley has been a good one. The kids are growing up in a more rural environment and wife Hilary has traded in her NASA hat for that of an entrepreneur. She has launched two different endeavors—“Hey! Turlock,” a social media effort to chronicle everything happening in the community, and she also self-publishes knitting designs on the internet, some of which have done quite well and gone viral.