January 4, 2016

WG Chairman Cox: A Man Ahead of His Time

When Larry Cox was a younger man, he fought a losing battle against the concept and eventual enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  As a grower in 1991, he invested in 300 acres in a Mexican growing area near Mexicali, the year before NAFTA was enacted.

“When I was in college I lobbied against it reasoning that it would not be a good thing for California farmers,” he said.  But once it was on the certain path of becoming law, Cox reasoned that if it was bad for California farms it was probably going to be advantageous for Mexican farms.

The 2015/16 chairman of the board of Western Growers, lifelong Imperial Valley resident and farmer often showed his pragmatic side when recently discussing his career, farming and other issues facing farmers today.  In fact, his major goal as the top volunteer leader at Western Growers for the next year is to help the industry take advantage of the U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A program.  Though he has never used the program as an employer, Cox said it is time to adopt whatever practices are available to fill the labor shortage that currently exists in agriculture.  He said it is clear that no legislative fix is imminent.  “We are not going to get a guest worker program,” he said matter-of-factly in assessing the current Congress’ stalled efforts toward immigration reform.  “We are at the precipice of a catastrophic labor shortage in California and Arizona.  We are looking at major crop losses and disastrous economic losses if we don’t start using the H-2A program.”

Cox admits to echoing the comments of the most recent WG chairman of the board, Vic Smith, who spoke of the almost-certain labor shortage during his outgoing chairman of the board address at WG’s Annual Meeting in November.  “The workers aren’t there to harvest the crops,“ Cox said.  ”At Coastline (a grower-shipper operation in which he is a partner), we had to disk under a six-acre cauliflower block on a very good market this year because we couldn’t get workers to harvest it.”

Cox believes situations like that will be commonplace if immediate action is not taken to ease the shortage.  Speaking in early December, he noted that many companies have applied for H-2A workers this year, but there is no guarantee enough workers will be granted to fill the needs.

Cox was born in the Imperial Valley, the youngest of four children in 1958 to grower Don Cox.  “My dad was a first generation farmer (in the Imperial Valley).  His dad, in fact both my grandfathers were airplane pilots who knew each other.”

The Cox family did have some farming background as one uncle and previous generations did farm in the Southern California towns of Tustin and Lakewood.  As urbanization took hold in Orange and Los Angeles counties, Don Cox, who had graduated from Berkeley, surveyed many different communities before deciding to move to Brawley and farm the land.  In those early years, sugar beets, alfalfa, barley and wheat were the main crops of the Cox operation.  Don Cox also got involved in fresh produce in the ensuing years, growing mostly tomatoes but also some lettuce crops every once in a while.

Larry’s older brother Mike followed in his father’s footsteps and established a 1,000 acre ranch near the Salton Sea when he entered the workplace.  An older sister and her husband also joined the family industry as they ventured out on their own as well.  By the time Larry was a junior in high school in the mid-1970s, his die was cast and he knew farming was in his blood and future.  “I grew up working on a farm.  In fact when I was in high school, my dad used to send me out to irrigate if I did anything wrong.  I spent a lot of time irrigating all night long as a junior and senior in high school.”

He went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and studied crop science, coming home with just enough information to think he was well educated.  He went to work with his dad and admitted that during the first six months they argued a lot about what to do.  “After about six months of disagreeing with him, I decided I can learn a lot from the guy and started to pay attention.”

Cox said that for the next five years, he and his dad would go to lunch every day at the Asia Cafe and talk about agriculture.  “I got a great education, though I appreciate it much more now than I did then.”

It wasn’t too long before he got to combine both his formal education and that received over countless lunches, and put it to good use.  Don Cox ran for and won a seat on the Imperial Irrigation District Board, and left the day to day running of the farm to Larry and his brother-in-law.  “He said a farm can’t have two masters and split the ranch up in 1985.  I managed half and my brother-in-law managed the other half.”

Besides running the family operation, Larry and his wife, Tina, started their own operation in the early 1990s and he also went into partnership on the Coastline operation.  And it was in the same time frame, that Larry Cox began farming in Mexicali.  Today, Lawrence Cox Ranches owns and manages about 4,000 acres in the Imperial Valley and another 3,000 in the Mexicali area.  Diversified farming is the key for both locations.  Imperial Valley has many different types of vegetables, onions for dehydration, sugar beets, melons, and citrus to name the bulk of the crops.  The Mexicali acreage is committed to more labor-intensive commodities such as green onions, asparagus, cauliflower, celery, Brussels sprouts, leeks and the like.

While Cox laments many of the adversities facing farmers in the southwest—regulations, lack of labor, drought, El Niño—he believes there are still many opportunities to prosper.  His two sons—Thomas and Travis—have joined the family business and they have many opportunities to succeed, but they are different opportunities than he had when he started 30 years ago.  “In the 1984, there was a crash in prices for all the commodity crops and there was about a 10-year period when no young people followed their families in the business.  But that has changed and there is a wide band of young people getting back into farming.”

Cox calls this group much smarter than he ever was with a technology skill set that will serve agriculture well for years to come.  He said this group is better equipped to handle the many challenges that face the industry.

Of course, he noted that the produce business is still ruled by supply and demand, and tends to thrive the best when calamity strikes, decreasing supplies and rising prices.  As Cox spoke in early December, the western vegetable industry was in such a period of good markets, and had been for several months.  “We do best when situations occur that we cannot control,” he noted.

Cox said if the industry can foresee a shortage, it will clearly overplant to it.  “We have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory so many times,” he quipped.

Assuming the chairmanship of Western Growers for 2016, Cox admits to being a bit more conservative than his predecessor, Vic Smith, who was chided the entire year for being a Democrat in a sea of Republicans.  But the pragmatic Cox sees that as very good for the industry.  “We need more Democrats like Vic Smith,” he said.  “He is incredibly intelligent and very caring.”

And besides, said Cox, it’s never good to have only one opinion in the room.  You need varied thoughts to question your own beliefs.

As he looked over his career and the successes he has had, Cox wanted to give credit where it was due.  He said he would be remiss if he didn’t single out his wife and the help she has given him, both in making decisions and raising the kids while he was out sowing the fields.

“I’ve made three great decisions in my life,” he said.  “Number 1, I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior.  Number two I convinced Tina to marry me and Number 3, I went into agriculture in the first place.”