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Don Johnston, leader in California potato industry, dies at 80

Don Johnston, a longtime leader in the California potato industry, died Tuesday, July 16, after several difficult years, including the death of his wife, Gail Johnston, last fall. He was 80.

Mr. Johnston was born in Portland, OR, on Feb. 22, 1933, where his father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad in perishable sales. After John C. Johnston left Southern Pacific in 1947, he moved his family to Bakersfield, CA, and started a seed potato business and Johnston Farms. Johnston went to high school in Bakersfield and then attended the University of Pacific in Stockton, CA, where he played basketball.

In 1955, Johnston joined the family business and dedicated his life to improving the industry.

Dennis Johnston, his son who worked alongside of him for the past 33 years, said his father was always on the cutting edge using new machinery and technology.

"He always wanted to be ahead of the curve rather than behind it," he said.

The family business grew over the years and included the growing of potatoes, peppers, wheat, cotton and a variety of citrus products.

Don and his brother, Gerald, ran the business after their father died in 1969. Gerald retired from the company a few years ago, but "my dad remained active until he could no longer come in, which was only about two weeks ago," said Dennis.

Dennis and his cousin, Kevin Johnston, have been joined by several members of the fourth generation in recent years, assuring that the Johnston legacy will live on for years to come.

Don Smith of Turlock Fruit Co. was one of Don Johnston's closest friends, having met him when both served on an agricultural employers board 50 years ago.

"We both went to the same college so we had that connection as well, though he was there a few years before I was," said Smith. "We have been friends for many years. I can tell you he was an industry leader that understood all phases of the business. He was the straightest shooter you'll ever know. No monkey business from him at all. If he told you something, you knew it was true."

Smith continued: "We served on the Western Growers [Association] board together for many years as well as the Western Growers Assurance Trust. He was a great guy and, of course, a real advocate for conservative politics. He made me seem like a liberal."

Matt McInerney, executive vice president of Western Growers Association, said Mr. Johnston was a huge asset for the association as he served on the board for decades and was the WGA chairman in 1977.

"He was integral to our growth in the '70s and for many of the programs, such as our government affairs focus, and all the various products and services today that assist farmers to remain competitive and profitable," said McInerney. "He was beloved by WGA staff for all that he did for Western Growers. A man of great character and integrity."