September 1, 2023

John D’Arrigo: Celebrating the Recipient of WG’s 2023 Award of Honor

Creating an individual legacy within the framework of a multi-generational operation takes effort, ingenuity and mastery. Managing to create something new while upholding the value of what has been done before can only be done with precision and intention.

John D’Arrigo learned at a young age that there are lessons in the work. As one of six kids growing up on a second-generation farm, John realized that while the necessities were always there, satiating wants came from work. Hard work. “Back when I grew up, everybody had to have a Schwinn 10-speed bicycle.” To get that Schwinn, John was given an objective that would be the foundation for everything. His father, Andy D’Arrigo, said to him, “Well, go earn it.” He did. And then someone stole it. Andy had another lesson at the ready. He said, “Let me teach you about insurance.”

As the years progressed, John continued to work in the family business. “Every summer, my dad had me working on the farm,” John said. “I worked in packing, rode the bus to work, cut and loaded celery and bunched onions. I did all of those jobs. I guess he was trying to figure out what I was made of and to teach a strong work ethic and what these people go through should I choose this as a career…He was a great teacher in all of those aspects, both my mother and my father, of just what it takes to make things work, make some money, work hard for it, feel good about it, see who you are as a person and can you stand it.”

Even with his contribution to the business in his youth, John’s involvement in terms of a career in the organization wasn’t a given. When John set out to college, he didn’t go with an idea of creating a legacy in agriculture. He went to college to be a dentist. It was a dentist who steered John back to the family business. “He said to me, ‘Are you crazy? You’re going to be stuck with me in this little, tiny office for the rest of your life and you’ve got this massive farming acreage with career paths everywhere?’” By the time John graduated from UC Davis in 1980, he had come to fully appreciate how special his family’s business was. As he got off the commencement stage, his father said, “I’ll see you on Monday morning.”

Monday morning started his master class in business as he worked in every different department within the company. It took years of working in different specialties with different groups within the organization to learn how the decades-old company worked on a cellular level.

In 1923, Andrea and Stefano D’Arrigo, two brothers from Messina, Sicily, founded D’Arrigo Brothers. Though the brothers started their operations in Boston, they expanded to the Salinas Valley in 1925. Andy Boy, with its now-iconic pink label, came two years later in 1927 to be the first branded fresh vegetable.

The kind of adaptive thinking and innovative creativity that started with Andrea and Stefano continues today at D’Arrigo with John. After experiencing the company at every level, John’s goal became clearer. When discussing that time, John recalled thinking, “I am going to grow this company… I studied why third-generation companies fail all over the country. I studied this for a while. Why did they fail? What happens? You have the entrepreneurs that really started, the innovators. Then you have the second generation, the builders. And then what happens with the third generation? A lot of them become inactive…I said, ‘That’s not going to be this.’”

On Feb. 1, 1992, Andy D’Arrigo, on his birthday, handed the company over to John with three words: “You earned it.”

At 33 years old, John put the pressure on himself to figure out what kind of company he wanted to stand at the helm of, and with a sentiment that would go on to motivate everything after, he declared that his and the company’s motto would be family first. “This is just a means to an end,” John said. “[It’s a] great company, and a great place to work with a good culture. But it’s really built so that you can have a great life. Let’s use it for that. Let’s take care of the company, put out great product, be good to the ground, the water, the soil, and treat people right.”

For John, it always comes back to people. His attention to how he values those around him in his community, whether they work for him or not, is in his actions more than his words. A key area of focus for him is the Seneca Family of Agencies. Being one of the six children Andy and Phyllis D’Arrigo adopted at birth, John has devoted time and resources to the Kinship Center. The Ag for Kids campaign started in 2013 and has raised over $285,000 for the Kinship Center’s Family Ties and Foster Care/Adoption programs. In his support of the Kinship Center, John looked to provide care to children in an important and sometimes overlooked way: “We built them a mental health clinic because we figured out that the physical aspects of adoption were happening but not the mental part,” John said. The project to create the D’Arrigo Children’s Clinic in conjunction with the Kinship Center started in 2004. Since then, the clinic provides psychological and psychiatric services from experienced therapists. Children and their families have access to individual, family and group counseling provided in both English and Spanish.

Another example of John supporting the younger generation and their advancement is his involvement with Rancho Cielo, a non-profit organization that started in 2003 to support the learning and social services for underserved youth in Monterey County. Rancho Cielo provides education in skills like construction, ag technology and auto and diesel repair. The welding and fabrication wing sponsored by the D’Arrigo Family opened in fall 2022.

John’s motivation to find ways to meet the needs of those in his community continued in 2010 when he created The Agricultural Leadership Council (TALC) for the Natividad Medical Foundation to improve health care for farm workers and their families. John brought farm families in the area together with two promises: help the farm workers and their families get the medical support they need and there wouldn’t be any required meetings. With that, TALC has donated over $4,500,000 that has gone toward medical equipment, diagnostic tools and health services to the Natividad Medical Center.

And John’s dedication to the health care field extends beyond TALC. D’Arrigo California is committed to supporting and raising awareness for breast cancer research. The $2.3 million dollars that D’Arrigo California has donated to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation has funded over 42,000 hours of breast cancer research.

The level of care that John has for those around him, both near and far, has had wide-reaching effects experienced by those in many different organizations. Whether he has served on a board for a company like Western Growers where his influence has made its mark, worked with his colleagues within the industry around him who have his guidance as well as support, or supported those who work for him who have the opportunity to thrive in their careers while also being present with and for their families, John’s authenticity, integrity and generosity has reached many. John may not have set out to build a legacy that summer when he started saving for that bike, but he has been building a lasting and grand one ever since.