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Keber Distributing harvesting its last crops

After a 27-year partnership between grower and sales agent, Keber Distributing Inc., based in Thermal, CA, is planning to shut its door as early as the end of May as the two principals head into retirement.

Sales agent Dick Keber, who founded the company in 1986 in partnership with grower Joe Kitagawa, said that Mr. Kitagawa has signed an agreement to lease all 2,200 acres of his farmland to Bakersfield, CA, based Grimmway Farms and its Cal Organics division for the purpose of growing organic carrots and others crops.

"We've had a wonderful partnership and I don't blame him at all," said Mr. Keber. "He has the opportunity to just collect rent and not have to worry about it. We've talked about it for the last few years and when this season got off to a terrible start in October and November, he made his decision."

Mr. Keber said the 68-year-old Mr. Kitagawa has been a grower in the area for the past 50 years, starting when he was 18 years old.

"He took over for the family a long time ago and is the sole investor in his farming operations," said Mr. Keber. "Up to a few years ago, he tells me he never had a losing year. But a few years ago, he lost a lot of money and last year wasn't very good either. When this year got off to a terrible start, he made his final decision on New Year's Eve to lease [the land]."

Ironically, Mr. Keber said that January and February were blockbuster months -- "The best in the history of the company" -- as the market for most items was north of a $20 f.o.b. But the dye had been cast and Mr. Kitagawa has no regrets.

Mr. Keber, who is 73, said that he will also enjoy retirement, but with the caveat that he might be convinced to stay in the business.

"I am not pursuing anything, but I'd listen to offers," he said. But if nothing materializes, he said he would happily move into retirement

Mr. Keber started in the produce business more than 40 years ago in the desert areas of California with stints at Gourmet Farms in El Centro, Circle Produce in Calexico and The DiMare Co. in Indio before forming Keber Distributing.

Keber has sold a full line of vegetables during the past 17 years, typically operating from Oct. 1 through June 15.

"We are one of the few full-line vegetable houses in the area," he said.

For most of that time, Mr. Kitagawa and his Golden Acres Farm was the sole supplier, though the company did have a relationship with a grower on the Mexican side of the border from time to time.