September 19, 2022

Western Growers’ 2022 Award of Honor Recipient Exemplifies the Best of California Agribusiness: Celebrating John Harris’ Golden State

In “East of Eden,” Nobel Prize-winning writer John Steinbeck wrote the following: “And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.”

“East of Eden” is a sprawling multi-generational tale of agricultural families in California, a re-telling of Cain and Abel amid the fields in the Salinas Valley. The novel and the resulting film adaptation starring James Dean helped established California in American culture as a place of agricultural risk and reward, and the place where opportunity can exist for individuals who dare to choose their own path.

It is, of course, a work of fiction, and one that is frequently brutal and jarring. But its themes of resilience and ultimate faith in the Golden State’s opportunity create an easy throughline to agricultural icon John Harris, who has grasped the entirety of the state’s bounty and turned it into a thriving business legacy.

In November at the 96th Western Growers Annual Meeting, the association’s membership will honor Harris with the 2022 Award of Honor. The Award of Honor is Western Growers’ highest recognition of achievement and is given to individuals who have contributed extensively to the agricultural community.

With more than 50 years’ experience in ranching, farming, hospitality and thoroughbred horse racing, Harris embodies the diversity of California agribusiness. The Harris Farms Group includes Harris Fresh and the Harris Farms Thoroughbred Division, in addition to the landmark property known to all Californians on the I-5.

“Like his iconic Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant, which stands as an oasis alongside a remote stretch of road, John is a pillar in California agriculture and the broader Western fresh produce industry,” said Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia. “It is safe to say that no one in this industry is more recognized and admired, and not just among his peers but also by community and political leaders throughout California. John’s vision can be seen in all his enterprises, from his ranching and farming businesses to his championship horse racing operations. Beyond his business endeavors, John is a powerful voice for farmers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and has dedicated his life’s work to the advancement of California agriculture and the rural communities our industry supports. John is most deserving of the Western Growers Award of Honor, and we are excited to present him with our highest recognition at our Annual Meeting in November.”

Managing the diversity of his business enterprises over the years required a nimble, methodical approach, according to Harris.

“I went into it with the idea that things were always going to be changing—and they were,” Harris said. “I didn’t have any false illusions that it was going to be an easy deal. Then again, I wasn’t really afraid of any problem, because I started with the idea that any problem would be solvable.”

Harris was born to a farm family whose operations in California extend back more than a century. He graduated with a degree in agricultural production from the University of California, Davis and then served two years in the U.S. Army.

“I was proud to have gone to a good university at Davis and expanded my knowledge there,” Harris said. “And I was in the Army for a couple of years as a commander of a Nike Hercules site and that gave me some leadership experience that was memorable.”

During his tenure as CEO and sole shareholder of Harris Farms and his 11 years on the Western Growers Board of Directors, Harris certainly experienced a saga of upheavals and changes in rural life and the agriculture industry.

“It’s sort of evolved, this area of farming,” Harris said. “Most people were diversified, to some extent, because they had water wells they needed to keep operating….well, we can’t do that anymore. Now we’re trying to diversify because you’re trying to hit all the highs and avoid the lows.”

But farming and ranching and hospitality aren’t Harris’ only endeavors that have brought him acclaim. In addition, Harris served five terms as president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, and in the summer you can find him by the ocean—not as your stereotypical retiree, but watching his prospects at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club just north of San Diego.

“I got into it, I guess, because my father was into it,” Harris said. “The whole scene, it kind of grabs you. I like it for the same reason I like farming: I like the people and the variety and the challenge.”

The Harris Farms Thoroughbred Division produced California Chrome, the winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

“I’ve been involved with John not only in horses, but in many agricultural enterprises,” said Don Valpredo, President of Donald Valpredo Farming and horse racing legend. “He’s a tireless worker—he uncovers every stone…he’s about as involved and as fair in everything that he does as anyone I’ve ever been involved with.”

Valpredo continued: “I read some place the other day about a person who is as successful as Mr. Harris. ‘If you see a turtle sitting on a fence, he didn’t get there alone.’ Right? And John has always employed very good people and partnered with very good people.”

It is a point of pride for Harris. “One of the things we do that is kind of unique is that we have a larger year-round workforce because we have a variety of crops,” he said. “I like to use people who have been here a long time because they have a good job and stability, and we like to capitalize on that.”

And this innate sense of team building has paid off not only in the success of Harris’ enterprises, but with the regard he is held in by the agricultural community. “I was very flattered to be recognized by my peers,” Harris said of being named the recipient of the Award of Honor for 2022. “I was pleased and proud that they felt like I deserved it.”

The Award of Honor will join numerous other significant awards Harris has received; in 1988 he was named Livestock Man of the Year by his peers in the ranching industry, and in 2014 he received the Agriculturalist of the Year award from the Fresno Chamber of Commerce. He received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the California State University at Fresno in 2019.

Looking back on Harris’ career, it is fitting to return to Steinbeck and “East of Eden”:

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open.”

Harris mayest, and he did.