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Seaview Ranch: A Crow's Nest in the Desert

The anonymity of the farmer who grows produce for the fresh marketplace is like that of a stage-hand. Both are pretty much responsible for the Final Show, yet they are seldom seen by their audience and rarely get any applause for their efforts. Melissa's would like to acknowledge the expertise of these unheralded, hard-working producers by shining a spotlight on one of our loyal suppliers each month to take a bow. We appreciate their dedication to the science of working with nature to provide the fresh foods that we all too often take for granted.

Melissa's long-time kumquat and sweet lime supplier, Seaview Ranch, has been operated by Ron Jensen and his family since 1983. However, the history and name of the ranch dates back to the 1940's for its location adjacent to the Salton Sea, the largest body of water in California. For the reader not familiar with this part of the country, the Salton Sea is a saline lake located about 130 miles east of San Diego, in the south-eastern corner of the Southern California desert.

The ranch has a rich farming history. The first kumquat trees were planted here in the late 1950's, when Seaview was owned by a long-since defunct produce company located in the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. Considering the fresh produce scene of 50 years ago, it was a pretty cutting-edge planting of a little known specialty item, as part of a complete crop conversion from the farm's pre-World War II history in grapes and mixed vegetable crops, over to several citrus varieties. The remnants of the first packing shed used to prepare those early citrus crops for market now serves as a crumblng reminder of those early days when everything was done by hand. While the post-harvest handling is now done at the ranch's modern 31,000 square-foot cooling and packing facility, kumquats are still a very labor-intensive crop to harvest because of their very small size.

While those early plantings have long since been replaced, the farm still tends some trees that were planted in 1969 and 1970. The ranch's crop plan has continued to expand its citrus offerings, to include approximately 160 fertile acres of Tangerines, Minneola Tangelos, Orlando Oranges and three varieties of grapefruit: Pink Marsh, Oro Blanco and Rio Star.

Today, Seaview Ranch is just one facet of the Jensen family's agricultural business holdings; new companies have evolved out of the needs that have stemmed from operating the core farming operation. However, looking back to 1983, Ron describes the purchase of Seaview Ranch as more of a real estate opportunity, with the difference being that it had an income-producing fruit crop already in place. "At the time, high double-digit interest rates had made my more conventional property management business very problematic, so I was looking for a more profitable investment option in land when the opportunity came along to buy Seaview, a commercial farming operation."

This explanation may have been the financial logic behind this purchase, but when pressed as to why he decided to get into the somewhat unpredictable, weather-dependent business of farming after years of success in the building and grocery industries, Ron blames a deep-seated gene left over from his Nebraska farm upbringing. "Back then, farms did not have the luxury of specializing in one crop or one type of agriculture," he recalls, "we raised chickens, cows, cattle, row crops, hay and grains, everything and anything that it took to provide food and finances for the family. It was hard work; we had what we made happen ourselves. So I guess my own background came back to haunt me with the purchase of Seaview." Ron added, "But I didn't really consider purchasing Seaview as a career stretch for me because I approached it with the same management formula that I had been practicing in my other businesses. That formula is the real key, no matter the specific business."

As mentioned, before Seaview, Ron Jensen had been a very successful entrepreneur who owned several grocery stores in and around Anaheim, California at a time before the national chain stores had begun to monopolize the grocery industry. He was also extremely active in property development and management throughout the fast-growing Orange County region; a business that son Dennis joined in the mid-70's.

"While I had not been on a farm in years," Ron went on to explain, "I applied the same management concepts to Seaview that I practiced in my grocery and property management businesses; namely, recognizing and hiring dedicated professionals, who have expertise and experience, to manage the day-to-day details of each venture. That is not to say that I am not a hands-on manager, but with the right family of people to man the helm and sails, so to speak, I am free to be in the corporate crows-nest; someone needs to maintain an eye on the larger view, a long-term perspective…to be able to work on the big stuff, to put it technically!"

Jensen elaborated, "In the early days of Seaview, l did have to learn about rootstock and citrus agri-tech-business, if that's a word, as it pertained to building a marketable crop mix best suited for the land. I talked to retailers, wholesalers, and nursery people to come up with the best-bet crop plan considering conditions and market value. However, the actual credit for making that happen at Seaview is Dennis Maroney, our ranch manager, who has been here since the beginning. Dennis is a great example of the management style that is the underpinning to Seaview and all of its varied spin-off operations. Find the right people to operate the farm or oversee the packing line, or deal with the farm labor issues and my job becomes a matter of managing a group of management professionals, be it a working farm, an apartment building, cold storage facility or a grocery store."

As the Seaview Ranch operation became more diversified in its holdings with the acquisition of another large specialty citrus operation in the area, it became apparent to Ron that more managerial expertise and energy were needed to oversee the burgeoning operation. This need came along at a time when son Dennis was definitely checking out the seemingly greener pastures on the other side of his own career fence as a real estate professional, because of a cyclical down-turn in the Southern California housing market.

Dennis had been working the real estate orchards of nearby Orange County, both figuratively and literally, since the mid-70's. It was rather ironic that, while his father was planting several citrus varieties in the desert, Dennis had become a successful property developer in his own right turning orange groves into condominium complexes, single-family tract and high-end residential homes during a California housing boom that lasted throughout the 1980's and into the early '90's.

When the Law of Gravity hit Dennis and the California real estate market in 1994, as it had for his Dad a decade earlier, he decided to join the Seaview management team. As Dennis explained, "The economy took a downward turn in the early 1990's. Unfortunately, I was in the midst of developing a high-end housing project at the time which I ended up having to put on the auction block; so a move to agriculture where a ready position was already in place, looked awfully good at that point. I guess you could say I was the one to venture out into the desert, so to speak, to help out Mom and Dad with their expanding farming operations."

In two years, Dennis had started yet another spin-off company whose services were born out of a need for a more consistent labor force for the ranch. Dennis turned the job of procuring that labor into Fresh-Pic Harvest, Inc. The company is licensed by the State of California to conduct harvesting operations. This business continues its growth through other labor-related activities in the Coachella Valley.

When the family acquired the modern cooling and packing facility a year later, Dennis took the reins of this operation too. Seaview Packing, Inc. has not only taken over the packing of all specialty citrus and medjool dates formerly handled on the farm, but the company also cools grapes, watermelon, strawberries and bell pepper for outside growers. Like the farm labor business, what started as a solution to the Jensen's own needs, took on a corporate identity of its own selling the same services to other growers in the region.

It should be no surprise that the Jensen family's own farm management success, combined with the value-added capabilities of farm labor, packing and storage, has given birth to yet another company. Oasis Ranch Management Company again offers what the family had put in place to manage their own growing operations, as a complete package to other farm owners in the Imperial and Borrego Springs valleys. Dennis has taken on the role of Operating General Manager with Dad still in the crow's nest giving input on course, speed and actions at regularly-held strategy meetings. Ron now splits his time between the ranch and his two residences in Santa Ana, California and Las Vegas; Dennis & Roya live in the La Quinta area, as his position running this multi-dimensional company requires it, but he would live there anyway.

To further qualify Seaview as a family farm, in spite of its corporate legal structure, there is another Jensen who is an integral member of its crew. Roya Jensen, Dennis' wife, handles most of the sales of the dates and expanding specialty citrus offering, which now include cocktail grapefruit, jujubes, Meyer lemons, limequats and kumquats as well as one of the company's biggest sellers, sweet limes.

While the farming business really knows no rest, Dennis and Roya do try to sneak away for mini-trips as the seasonal ebb and flow of the crops allow. "We try to balance our family, work and play as best we can." said Dennis, "While we count ourselves very lucky to live in a region of the country that those from colder climates count on for awesome scenery and mild climates for their fall, winter and spring vacations, we try to get away for a weekend once every six weeks or so just to refresh our batteries and visit a new place. These little trips are not that exotic – the warm waters of Baja peninsula, the Grand Canyon as well as Yosemite and the rest of the high Sierras – but without them we wouldn't be able to see the orchards for the trees!"

During the interview, Ron and Dennis both explain Seaview Ranch's growth as merely a logical progression of the graduating steps necessary to run the business with increased efficiency. From this side of the notepad however, both Jensens are a bit modest about their own abilities to first convert needs into real working parts and then use those working parts to create other opportunities.

The moderate-sized farm that began as simply a good real estate investment, has grown into an entity that not only farms, harvests, cools, packs, stores and sells its own crops, but has turned each of those stages in their own harvest needs into profitable enterprises rather than overhead. They see this evolution as simply logical, to quote Mr. Spock. However, if it were that obvious and easy, the Jensen's neighbors would not be customers and there would be crow’s nests dotting the Southern California desert!

Copyright by Melissa's World Variety, used with permission.

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