WESTLEY, Calif. — Fourth-generation farmer Bill Cox grew up driving tractors and working alongside his father in the fields and orchards of Stanislaus County.
“In college at the University of California-Davis I considered a career in biology, possibly working for the California Fish and Game Department,” he said. “I decided to farm as I finished college, but had to go into the Navy for a few years. Later I went to work for the Contadina tomato cannery for two years, before farming.”
In 1985, Cox and his wife, Karen, began selling dehydrated tomatoes from their farm, and called the company Just Tomatoes. Over the years, they added apples and persimmons, then berries, corn and peas. Their son, a brother and two cousins are now involved in the operation.
“As farmers, we knew all about growing things — crops as well as relationships — so we built partnerships with other farmers to help grow our company,” Cox said. “With new dehydrated and freeze-dried fruits and veggies in the line-up, Just Tomatoes became much more than ‘just tomatoes.’ We grow tomatoes, dry lima beans, walnuts, almonds and oats. We buy fresh apples to dehydrate and buy the rest freeze dried.
“As a tribute to the nurturing spirit of my wife, in 2016 we renamed the company Karen’s Naturals.”
There are a few other farms that sell dried fruit, mostly sun-dried. All are in California.
Cox has long been active in the Stanislaus County agricultural community.
“Bill Cox has served on the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau board of directors for over 30 years,” said Wayne Zipser, executive director of the county Farm Bureau. “Bill is a well-known farmer on the westside of our county. He has served with distinction and is known for his active participation in many organizations and has been a true leader in the agricultural industry.”
Cox says he has noted several changes in the industry in the past years.
“I would say the biggest change is tomatoes for processors due to lack of a negotiated price until after planting sometimes,” he said. “Also, the high cost of production, expensive harvesting equipment and necessity to schedule round-the-clock harvest at their best interest and not ours.”
He’s also seen many other changes.
“Significant changes have been the increase in permanent crops such as almonds and walnuts and grapes, as well as efficiency and improvements in irrigation, such as drip systems that conserve water,” Cox said.
Cox and his company market tomatoes to canning processors, beans and nuts to dealers, oats to the open market or to his cousin for his cattle.
Karen’s Naturals are available on Amazon and other online outlets. Customers can also set up auto-shipping for weekly deliveries.
“I feel the biggest challenge in the future will be the question of assurance of adequate water for irrigation,” he said, adding, “Right now market uncertainty is a problem due to counter tariffs imposed on our crops by certain nations.”