By Becky Hanks
Valley Women Writer
10:20 AM PST, February 1, 2011
“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.
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.
“Self-knowledge is best learned not by contemplation, but by action. Strive to do your duty and you will soon discover of what stuff you are made.” — Johann Goethe
But Kuhn soon was confronted with the reality that Jim had no right-hand man she upon whom she could depend to run the farming operations, and she was uncomfortable with Kevin continuing to put his business on hold to help her.
“That was where I had the most risk. There were huge capital requirements and exposure to market ups and downs,” she explains. “All of a sudden as a single mom with two kids and planning for the future, it was too hands-on for me.” With a broken heart, she decided to liquidate much of the farm operations, while holding on to the farm ground that the couple had purchased together.
“That was an extraordinarily painful process,” she admits. More than 200 employees were laid off, the equipment was sold in public auction, and land leases were let go that they had maintained for years.
“I was trying to protect people from the fallout of Jim’s death, but I realized that all I could do was protect my own family,” she explains. “I’ve had to let go of the guilt about choosing a different path.”
In 2006, the family moved to San Diego, and she continued to oversee the dairy and cheese factory with two-day trips every week, keeping her finger on the pulse of the operations. A trusted babysitter stayed with the children.
“Several times a day, I had to drive by the place where Jim lost his life,” she confides. “All of it was a constant barrage of sadness, all day, every day. Now I can touch the sadness when I come back for work, but I don’t have to live in it.”
Emotional moments also rise when she mentally sifts through her memories to find Jim’s offhand comments that revealed his thoughts and beliefs.
“If Jim were here, what would he say?” she ponders. This question often pops up when the kids are contemplating some potentially dangerous activity from which their non-athletic mom would shy away.
Their daughter is an adrenaline junkie just like her father, Kuhn says. Although she attends all of 12-year-old Vienna’s equestrian jumping competitions, she admits to covering her eyes to avoid watching the girl’s daring rides.
Jim was also adamant, she recalls, that Fritz would not be allowed to play organized football until he was 10. The day the boy was old enough, it seemed his father was right there giving his blessing because that was the way Jim wanted it.
“The kids and I talk about Daddy all the time. I’m glad they have this picture of him as a real man rather than a visionary legend.”
“It’s not as many memories as we’d like, but it’s still central to who they are,” Kuhn says.
Loving others is the most important work we have to do.
“One of the things I’m most grateful for is the relationships with other farmers and friends,” she says. Kevin and Kim Grizzle of Holtville were and remain her best friends and have continued to support her and the kids by sharing their love, time and farming expertise over the past five years.
Imperial Valley Cheese still produces high quality Swiss and Muenster cheeses, while all the milk produced at the 5,500-head dairy, as well as milk from another local dairy, is used for the process. The hay compressing and shipping business is now handled by her mother-in-law Madeline Kuhn.
Kuhn has remained an outspoken member of the Imperial Group, a consortium of local growers who are suing the Imperial Irrigation District over restructuring the water transfer and the issue of selling water to metropolitan areas.
“Operating from a position of fear is not a prime position,” she says of their decision to lobby for agricultural rights. “It is best to operate from the offense.”
Although she claims none of the business sense that was so abundant for Jim, Kuhn is now working on an effort to bring algae farming to the Imperial Valley, to grow the crop as an alternative to petroleum. The work seems to perfectly meld both her worlds of agriculture and public policy. And it’s something she can do for the Valley while still living in San Diego.
Still in the planning stages, she works closely with the University of California, San Diego and serves on the advisory board for the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology.
Her dream would be to build an algae farm in Imperial Valley that could use waste water and whey from the dairy and cheese factory. Oil from the algae would be sold for fuel, the nutritious byproducts would be fed to the dairy cows, and the water would be cleaned. The venture could put the county on the forefront of the nation’s renewable energy efforts while also boosting the economy with more jobs.
“There are all these synergies that seem to me to be the next step in food processing, in agricultural production and energy production. Algae seems to me to be the missing link.”
We had better capture today.
Now that Vienna and Fritz are older, she has cut her visits to the Valley to twice a month to check on the businesses. It frees her up to watch Fritz play football and Vienna’s volleyball and horse-jumping competitions. Like their father, the kids have dreams — Vienna takes voice lessons and contemplates becoming an ambassador while Fritz thinks he’d like to be an architect.
“Jim was all about agriculture, hard work and pushing the envelope,” she says. “But more than anything, he was about living life to the fullest each day.” It is something Kuhn has done her best to impart to their children.
Although she cannot stand the thought of their children leaving her, they are planning a trip to visit the same New Hampshire boarding school that Jim attended so that the kids can have options.
Healing produces strength.
“I’ve learned that I can do more than I ever would have thought,” she admits. “I’ve learned about human relationships. I’ve learned about faith and our internal resources. Actually, I feel really lucky, which is crazy. I feel really blessed … What I’ve gone through is nothing compared to the huge challenges that other people face on a daily basis.”
Copyright © 2013, Imperial Valley Press