After 45 years on the Western Growers Board of Directors, Gary Pasquinelli stepped down in November having served the longest tenure in the 90-plus year history of the association.
“Our longest serving board member is not only one of the most active producers in the industry, he puts his time, talent and treasure into everything he does,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers and a friend Gary for the vast majority of both their working lives. “He has been an invaluable resource for me whenever I need advice on issues affecting our members. His breadth of knowledge in the agricultural field is matched by his political acumen and personal involvement. He will always make the difficult call to any legislator. His love of the Lord and family adds a dimension to his persona that reflects in how he treats friends and neighbor alike. He is a dear friend and will be missed by us all.”
Pasquinelli told Western Grower & Shipper that he is also stepping back a bit in other aspects of his life. He has been a deacon in the Catholic Church for the past 27 years with official duties in his local Yuma church. He is also relinquishing those official duties. With regard to his company—Pasquinelli Produce Company, he is also beginning the transition process to new leadership, which he expects to occur on “the near horizon…over the next three years.” Son-in-law Alex Muller, who has focused on food safety issues at the company, is moving into a more senior administrative position to assume some of Gary’s duties as time moves on. Muller was also elected by his Yuma area peers to succeed Pasquinelli on the WG Board of Directors.
Pasquinelli attended boarding school in San Jose at Bellermine College Prep. Upon graduating in 1961, he was accepted into several different universities, but the letter from Notre Dame was the one that caught his eye. “When I got that letter, it was like a slam dunk,” he once told Western Grower & Shipper. It made sense. For a youth who attended Catholic grade school and high school with the Jesuits and who served as an altar boy, Notre Dame was the end-all of universities.
In 1965, after graduating cum laude from Notre Dame, Pasquinelli headed west to attend law school at UC Berkeley. But soon he decided that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the fresh produce industry. In 1967, he joined Pete Pasquinelli in the family business. His first assignment was in the cabbage patch where he was responsible for its harvest. Compared to the rest of the 4000-acre farming operation, it was a small slice of the pie, just 40 acres…but it was all his. Having successfully managed the cabbage harvest, the following year he was assigned to manage the produce field trucks. For two years, he oversaw the trucks that hauled the lettuce from the fields back to the cooling plants and then was promoted to the position of overseeing the entire harvest.
The next 18 years were formative for the young Pasquinelli and provided a platform for constructing the man he is today. During those years he got to know every worker in the operation, all 230 of them. He knew their names, their families and their interests. And he got to where he could speak Spanish fluently. As he described it, “I lived with them out in the field and was with them morning to night. I really respected those people. I got an appreciation for what tough work that was.”
Between 1975 and 1983, Pasquinelli estimates he ran about 65 percent of the company and his dad ran 35 percent. When his dad passed away in 1984, Gary took over the entire operation.
But farming wasn’t the only calling in Pasquinelli’s life. As mentioned above, he was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Tucson in 1991 after several years of taking the required training. Besides tending to his own family matters, Deacon Pasquinelli has provided many services for his church, including preaching at Mass, running the infant baptism program, performing baptism interviews, teaching classes and delivering communion to nursing homes on occasion.
Pasquinelli and his wife, Barbara, have four daughters. Their daughter, Kirsten, passed away from Adrenocortical Carcinoma and a foundation was established to cure this disease thereby supporting her legacy. He also called his sister and silent business partner, Adrienne McLaughlin, a great help over the years in all aspects of his life.
Though Pasquinelli Produce was a member of Western Growers for many years under the tutelage of his father, it wasn’t until the late 1960s, when the labor battles came to Yuma, that the company got more involved with the association. Gary began working with WG lawyers and President Daryl Arnold to defeat the unionization efforts. As the ‘70s dawned, the fight intensified. “We ended up beating the union and were able to harvest our entire 2,000 acre cantaloupe crop under strike conditions. I remember Daryl Arnold saying of me that I am the kind of ‘young leadership’ that the board needed. I was about 28 at the time.”
A couple of years later, longtime WGA Yuma director Sid Woods retired. “With his blessing, I ran for the position and have been a director ever since. My blood is in the bricks,” he said of WGA, recalling many services and activities that he was intimately involved in over the past five decades. He spoke of the advent of harvest-time strike insurance and noted that he was the person who came up with the name Quail Street Casualty for the association’s off-shore insurance entity. The name came from the street that housed the association headquarters in the 1970s.
Pasquinelli recalls that he was asked to serve as chairman in the early 1990s but his deacon duties took precedent and he declined the honor. In 2000, he did serve as chairman under President Dave Moore. “I was very close to Dave and delivered the eulogy at his funeral.” The following year he chaired the search committee that brought Tom Nassif to the president’s position. Pasquinelli remembers meeting Nassif during the tumultuous labor battles when the future WG CEO was a young labor attorney.
As chairman, and throughout the years, Pasquinelli said he has been guided by the notion of being a “servant leader…leading by example. I got so much more out of it than I ever gave,” he said, greatly undervaluing his service.
He believes deeply in the work of Western Growers and the concepts of “circling the wagons” and “strength in numbers.” And he also knows it was time to step down. There is a fire in the belly that informs this work and Pasquinelli said that while the flame is still there, it’s not burning quite as bright.