Obituary: Lettuce Magnate John Tanimura, 1920-2009
We tend to celebrate innovative, risk-taking entrepreneurs -- as a nation, and certainly within these pages. But where would these mad geniuses be without the steady hands that turn inspiration into precision?
Tanimura & Antle, based in Salinas, California, sells $500 million or so of lettuce and other produce each year. The company gobbles up acreage and seizes on innovations such as vacuum cooling, water-saving drip irrigation, and GPS-controlled tractors. But no amount of high finance or high technology could replace a walk through the fields by John Tanimura, the most conservative of the brothers who against impossible odds built the nation's biggest lettuce grower, says Don Villarejo, founder of the California Institute for Rural Studies.
To grow quality produce, Villarejo says, "you've got to have people who are willing to walk the rows."
John Tanimura died April 27 of what his daughter Jeannie called old age. He was 88, and until a few weeks before his death, he still inspected the company's fields five or six days a week, often picking a head of lettuce, peeling away the outer layers, and eating it where he stood to gauge a crop's readiness.
"Uncle John, he loved to drive tractors," says Gary Tanimura, 59, a leader of the family's next generation. "He was a study in time and motion." Tractor work is the essence of this kind of agriculture. As the operation grew, John sized up workers to find the best tractor hands and then kept a close watch. His devotion to precision, along with better seeds, helped lift yields from 640 boxes an acre decades ago (24 heads of lettuce to a box) to about 1,000 boxes today.
Since 1982, the company has been owned 50-50 by the Tanimuras, who are farmers, and the Antles, who are packers, processors, and distributors. Tanimura & Antle farms about 40,000 acres and sells primarily under its own name.
John was one of 13 children. Losing both parents when eldest brother George was just 16, the brood kept the family farm going in the 1930s. "We were poor," says George Tanimura, 93, still co-chairman of Tanimura & Antle. "We were orphans."
The Tanimuras lost their land and were all locked up in an internment camp during World War II. John and a brother were released to join the Army, and John served in Germany. After the war, the Tanimuras started over, returning to the fertile fields south of San Francisco. "We had no home," George recalls. "We picked prunes."
The Tanimuras managed to buy 20 acres and lease 30 or 40, farming as a team and subjecting one another to harsh criticism to avoid mistakes. When they acquired a 100-acre farm in Watsonville, California, and determined that a lone brother would oversee the operation, it was John, the perfectionist, they chose. That was the pattern for years to come. Others made the deals, experimented with new technology, got comfortable in offices; John Tanimura just kept farming.