The couple had two children, a daughter named Vienna and Fritz, their son whom they named after Jim’s father and grandfather.
Jim’s years of driving rural roads spawned a fascination in wildlife photography, and that in turn inspired him to found the Salton Sea International Bird Festival to bring birding tourists to the Imperial Valley. Later, he published a photography book about Baja California called “Land of Contrasts” and a guide to Imperial Valley birds.
Yet, along with his artistic side, Jim was also blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit. Realizing the Valley had once been a paradise of milk dairies, he set out to bring the industry back and prove it could be profitable. In 1990, he founded KF Dairy. His vision was coupled with the work ethic and risk-tolerance necessary to pull it off successfully, and he worked to bring other dairymen to the Valley to try to build the local economy. Following close behind the dairy, he continued his business’ vertical integration by partnering with Gossner Foods out of Utah to build a state-of-the-art cheese plant in 1999 next to KF Dairy.
“He took a great opportunity and multiplied it exponentially,” Kuhn says with pride.
Their lives were idyllic. Kuhn stayed home with the kids, and Jim wove in and out of the house while he supervised farming operations, the hay compressing plant, the dairy and the cheese factory. They spent weekends riding around checking fields, and the children were well on their way to becoming country kids. Vacations were always spent out of town at adventurous locations.
“If we were here, we were working. If we were gone, we were traveling,” she says, smiling. With Kuhn’s strong background in education, they decided to home school their children for first grade, giving them a jumpstart before sending them to public school. Kuhn was excited and looking forward to special one-on-one time with her son, she remembers.
We have an appreciation and sensitivity that comes from knowing that tomorrow may not be there.
On August 29, 2005, it was Vienna’s first day of third grade at McCabe School, and Kuhn had just finished Fritz’s first morning of home-schooling when she received the phone call. Jim had been in a single-vehicle rollover accident along Evan Hewes highway near Seeley. At the hospital, she learned that he hadn’t made it.
The unthinkable had happened. In one instant, she lost her partner in life and their children lost their daddy. The community reeled with the news, and the next week was a blur as Kuhn planned her husband’s funeral services.
We are stronger than we might have been.
One week later, Kuhn sat at Jim’s desk and found herself in the position of trying to step into her husband’s shoes. How could she effectively make decisions for four agricultural businesses — businesses upon which their livelihood depended?
“Jim and I always talked at night about the big strategic issues facing the farm, but not how to run the operation day to day,” she says.
Realizing her shortcomings, she felt pressured to sell quickly but resisted the temptation.
“What occurred to me immediately was that our family … had sacrificed so much. Every dime went back into the business and every spare moment was spent building those businesses,” says Kuhn. “I just felt like I did not want to cut and run and sell everything in a fire sale. I wanted to at least stick with everything long enough to make an informed decision.”
Taking a deep breath, she recognized that the dairy, with more than 2,500 milk-producing cows and 4,500 total head at that time, was safe in the competent hands of Tom Ferriera, a close family friend who runs all of KF Dairy’s operations with his family.
Day-to-day operations at Imperial Valley Cheese were also well-taken care of by manager Clemente Russo. Gossner Foods president Dolores Gossner Wheeler also has become a stalwart and trusted friend who made sure the factory would continue to thrive and grow, she says.
“There have been so many people who have helped me find a good, new normal,” she admits.
She and the kids stayed in Imperial Valley for a year after Jim’s death with Kuhn scrambling through a crash course on the farming and dairy business. She lost 20 pounds from her already tiny frame.
“The kids were 5 and a half and 7 and a half when Jim died. Still pretty little,” she says wistfully. “Basically, at that moment, they lost their mom and dad both because I went to work immediately and did not see them for a year. I left before they woke up in the mornings and came home after they were asleep.”
Giving up his own business venture, their good friend Kevin Grizzle immediately stepped in to help her run the farm for that first year. Without his enormous sacrifice, she never would have made it, she admits.