“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” — Abraham Lincoln
Businesswoman, mother and widow Heidi Kuhn is president of KF Dairy and a partner of Imperial Valley Cheese, the only producer of Swiss and Muenster cheese in California. And yet, her career accomplishments came with a painful price — the loss of her beloved husband Jim Kuhn, the father of their young children.
In the five years following Jim’s tragic and untimely death, Kuhn has pushed through her grief to continue the Valley agriculture business ventures her husband boldly founded so many years ago. But more significantly, she is a loving mother to their son and daughter, attempting to instill a sense of their father’s presence and perpetual love for them.
Day by day, hour by hour, she has moved forward. One thing that carried her the first year was a collection of quotes she taped to her mirror to help her face the daily challenges and keep her priorities straight. She calls them “affirmations from my bathroom mirror.”
“Stand undefended before the things that are not permanent and let pain pull you toward everything that lasts.”
“I’ve had to rewrite the rule book … It’s about going forward,” she admits. “I had to find a new normal. Both in business and with the kids.”
But Kuhn’s interest in the agriculture and farming life had to be cultivated. As the eldest child with one brother, she was raised in Aptos, a small California town located near the beach south of Santa Cruz. Her parents divorced when she was about 11 years old, and they both remarried.
Although a nearby community of Watsonville was strong in agricultural production, she had no background in farming or livestock. Concentrating on school academics, she hadn’t ventured into music or sports but stayed involved in student government and politics until graduating from high school in 1983.
Her efforts paid off as she worked her own way through Stanford University with grants, scholarships, work study and money she earned during the summers, culminating in her graduation in 1987 with a degree in public policy.
While at Stanford, the petite blonde was a member of the men’s rowing team as a coxswain. At 18, she met her future husband Jim Kuhn when they were teammates on the rowing team.
They had a Spanish class together, and her first recollections of Jim were watching a tall, good-looking man stride late into every class, plop down into his seat and promptly fall asleep. To her amazement, he still earned top scores on all of his exams. Later, she discovered he spoke fluent Spanish after growing up in Imperial Valley and working on the family farm, surrounded by Spanish-speakers. He had enrolled in the class to earn easy credits.
“But I thought it was because he was brilliant,” she laughs.
They began dating when she was 20, she says, and dated through Jim’s junior and senior year, spending time apart during summers and when he took a quarter off from school to work on the farm.
As they dated, she learned of his love for travel, the fact that he attended eighth grade and high school at boarding schools in Indiana and then New Hampshire and that he was a talented linguist. Jim graduated from Stanford with a degree in Slavic languages and literature.
After Kuhn earned her degree, she moved to Washington, D.C. She worked three years on Capitol Hill for Congressman Harris Fawell (R) who represented Illinois’ 13th district, where she handled his education and labor committee work. Later, she moved to San Diego continuing her work in public policy and politics and writing for the San Diego Business Journal.
Kuhn finally married Jim in 1994, and they moved to a rural home near the family farm southwest of Seeley. She quickly made friends with other young wives who were also transplants to the community. In 1995, she became the second president of the Young Farmers and Ranchers Club and won the organization’s statewide debate contest. She also joined the Imperial County Farm Bureau and was elected to its board for 10 years.
With her background in public policy, Kuhn was a natural in tackling farm and agricultural issues, something that is still forefront in her life today.
“All my Farm Bureau work and water issues work — all of it ends up being public policy oriented. I like the decision-making on the policy side of things and how it trickles down to affect people and the way they live.”
Jim was also making his name known in the farming community. Those who knew him talk of his distinctive intelligence that could have taken him almost anywhere in the world where he’d have cultivated a successful career. But he chose to return to Imperial Valley and take over the family farm and hay compressing business, trusting that the unique rural area where he grew up would be perfect for his own family.