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Buster Giovanetti, pioneer in California melon deal and longtime WGA board member, was 94

by Tim Linden | August 26, 2009
B.E. (Buster) Giovanetti, a longtime California grower, shipper and distributor who was very active in the western produce industry, died Aug. 22 in Woodland, CA, where he resided. He was 94.

Just three months ago, Mr. Giovanetti told this reporter from his Northern California office that he wouldn't retire until "they drive the last spike in the box." He got his wish, as he was active in his family-run business until the end.

Mr. Giovanetti migrated to a produce industry career in 1933 during the Great Depression. His father was a well-known banker with the Bank of Italy in San Francisco. The elder Mr. Giovanetti wanted his son to follow him into the business of high finance by going to college and then to law school. But Buster Giovanetti, as he was called throughout his life, was working next to well-educated men on the San Francisco produce market, and he decided college was a waste of his time.

He was proud of the fact that he became a self-made man and was well- schooled in business and politics without a college degree. In fact, he bragged that for many of his years as a director of Western Growers Association and a leader of the association, he was the only one on the board without a degree.

Mr. Giovanetti began his produce career at the Half Moon Fruit & Produce Co. in 1933, where his uncle was a partner and one-third owner. Seventy-six years later, he was principal owner of the same company until his death. In between, he had a storied career.

During his first four years in the business, Mr. Giovanetti's job was to pick up loads of produce all over the state and take them to the firm's terminal market operations in San Francisco or Sacramento.

"One day in 1937, my boss in San Francisco told me to bring a driver with me the next morning when I was scheduled to deliver a load of sweet potatoes from Bakersfield," Mr. Giovanetti related. "When I got there, he gave me the keys to a brand new car and told me I wasn't going to be driving a truck anymore."

Mr. Giovanetti then traveled up and down the state in his new car making grower deals for the firm for the next 20 years. "In 1937, I promoted the melon deal from Live Oak. In 1939, I promoted and established the melon deal in Yolo," he said during that May interview earlier this year.

In 1963, Mr. Giovanetti became a one-third partner in the organization, and in 1967, he bought his partners out. His first act as the sole proprietor was to close the terminal market houses and concentrate sales from the firm's packingsheds.

Along the way, he had four sons, with three (Ron, Don and John) becoming involved in the family business. His oldest son, E.J. Giovanetti, is a senior partner in an Iowa law firm.

Mr. Giovanetti was always well aware of the political situation and never afraid to voice his opinion. He served as mayor of Woodland for two years in the 1960s, and served eight years on the city council.

During 28 years on the board of WGA, he was noted for his irascible style and booming voice. He was instrumental in helping the association shape its political involvement, as it became one of the more ardent lobbyists for agriculture in California and Arizona during Mr. Giovanetti's tenure on the board.

After three of his sons joined the family organization, B.E. Giovanetti & Sons was founded and it remains the firm's farming operation. The family company owns about 7,000 farm acres in several different California locations. His son Don died in an automobile accident in 2002, but Ron and John still manage the various operations.

Long a leader in the California melon industry, Mr. Giovanetti took the company out of the melon business in 2003, which he told this reporter "was two years too late."

In May, at the age of 93 and slowed a bit from a broken neck incurred a couple of years earlier, Mr. Giovanetti still had a keen sense of what makes a market tick and worried that California growers were causing many of their own problems.

"Us farmers can't stand prosperity," he quipped. "We always have to overdo it."