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Virgil Rasmussen, past president of Ballantine Produce, dies at 94

Virgil E. Rasmussen, longtime president of Ballantine Produce Co. in Sanger, CA, and former board member and chairman of several table grape and tree fruit industry organizations, died peacefully at his Sanger home Sunday, Nov. 18. He was 94.

According to a letter sent Nov. 19 by the California Grape & Tree Fruit League to its members, Ballantine Produce, which was founded in 1943, grew under Mr. Rasmussen's leadership to become  Virgil-RasmussenVirgil E. Rasmussen"one of California's largest and most respected packers of California tree fruit and grapes. In addition to farming substantial acreage, the company also ran packinghouses and cold-storage plants and marketed fruit worldwide."

Over the years, Mr. Rasmussen had served on numerous industry boards, the letter stated. He served as the league's chairman of the board of directors from 1953-54.

In 1992, the league presented Mr. Rasmussen with its Mentor's Award, "which is the highest award the league bestows," according to the letter. "The Mentor Award is given to an individual who has demonstrated exceptional dedication to the fresh grape, berry and tree fruit communities through leadership in the industry" and who has been a trusted counselor and a tutor and coach to others.

In accepting the award, Mr. Rasmussen "recalled his love for the industry and his efforts throughout his career to work for its best interests," the letter said.

Mr. Rasmussen was instrumental in the formation of the California Table Grape Commission and served as a commissioner on that organization from its founding in 1968 until 1996. He also served as chairman of numerous Grape Commission committees over the years and as the commission's chairman from 1982-84.

"Virgil was a giant in the grape industry and tree fruit industry and a real leader in both industries," said Kathleen Nave, president of the commission. "He is one of the people who was credited with helping create the legislation that created the Table Grape Commission," working with Martin Zaninovich and Mila Caratan.

Ms. Nave described Mr. Rasmussen as "a very gracious man."

Bruce Obbink, past president of the commission, said, "I've known [Mr. Rasmussen] from the day I started with the Council of California Growers in 1962," and "I really got well acquainted with him when I went to the Table Grape Commission in 1968. He was truly a leader in the industry." Mr. Rasmussen was on the commission during Mr. Obbink's entire 30 years at its helm, "so we had a lot of contact with each other."

Mr. Rasmussen was thoughtful, Mr. Obbink said. "He thought through issues carefully and always made recommendations in a suggestive manner and not in an authoritative manner, which gave him those leadership qualities that brought people along. He was just a really good guy. I had a great deal of respect for him."

Ballantine was founded in 1943 as a packing operation. In 1950, the company was acquired by Virgil Rasmussen, Ed Shoenburg and David Albertson. Mr. Albertson acquired full interest in the company in the early 1990s, although Mr. Rasmussen continued as president until it closed its packing operations in 2009.

At its peak, the company marketed more than 9 million boxes of fruit per year and operated more than 400,000 square feet of production facilities in Reedley, CA.

Mr. Albertson told The Produce News Nov. 19 that Mr. Rasmussen was an icon in the industry. "He was a man of great integrity. He was a trusted associate of my family for some 60 years. He was a man of the earth who understood the grower dilemmas and was a fabulous resource for three generations of people in the industry and in his enterprise.

"He represented the industry in almost every capacity with services either sought or offered. He was in the forefront of major, significant industry issues, whether it be labor, whether it be politics, whether it be all the way to the Supreme Court in a very famous case. He commanded great respect from all levels,” he said.

"I met Virgil as a kid in the 50s and re-established a relationship with him as an adult in the early 70s and 80s," Mr. Albertson continued. "I enjoyed every minute" of that association."

Mr. Albertson said that he had spent an hour with Mr. Rasmussen the Wednesday before he died. "He was physically showing the signs of wear and tear, but he was mentally very alert," he said. "I gave him a hug and said, 'I'll see you in a couple of weeks.'" News of his passing just four days later came as a surprise. "Thank God when his time was up he didn't suffer."

Mr. Albertson's son, Scott Albertson, who formerly worked in business development and marketing at Ballantine and now owns Fruit Specialties Inc. in Fresno, CA, said that Mr. Rasmussen was like a grandfather to him and "to all the young people" in the company. "He always took time to give full thought to their questions or situations."

Mr. Ballantine "was active until the day we closed," he said. "It was an honor to work with the man. He was a great guy [who] walked among giants."

"I first met Virgil when my father served with him on the board of directors of the California Tree Fruit Agreement," said Wayne Brandt, president of Brandt Farms in Reedley, CA, who himself worked with Mr. Rasmussen on various industry boards. "I have known him for many, many years. He was one of the guys that shaped the industry. He worked tremendously hard on issues with the California Tree Fruit Agreement marketing order. He was always a man of his word."

"There is no question that when it comes to the early pioneers of the stone fruit industry in the San Joaquin Valley, you can't leave Virgil Rasmussen's name off of the list," said Atomic Torosian, an owner of Crown Jewels Produce Co. in Fresno. "He was always a man of his word and a real gentleman." His company, Ballantine Produce, "was always looked to as one of the leading companies in the valley."

Richard Matoian, executive director of American Pistachio Growers in Fresno, said in a written statement, "Virgil was a true statesman for the industry. His words were thought provoking and always right on point. When he spoke, people listened. He had a knack for saying the right thing at the right moment to set the industry direction on the correct path."

Mr. Rasmussen was preceded in death by his wife of 68 years, Cathenia Myrtle Rasmussen, who died just one year ago.

A memorial service in Mr. Rasmussen's honor is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 26 at the United Methodist Church in Sanger.