(Oct. 18) In one way or another, their companies or concerns have helped feed the demand for fresh produce — a category that’s helped contribute to billions in individual wealth.

Several people with produce industry ties filled the pages of Forbes 2004 list of the 400 richest Americans, a roster comprised of people worth at least $750 million. Billionaires made up 78% of the list.

Included among those with 10-digit net worths were three moguls with backgrounds in produce supply and distribution, and four who made part, or most, of their fortunes in the grocery industry. Eight of the list’s other billionaires got their wealth from Wal-Mart.

At the top of the supply side was John Simplot, 95, and family, who, with an estimated $2.3 billion in net worth, run Boise, Idaho-based potato processor J.R. Simplot Co., which supplies McDonald’s Corp. with half of its french fries.

The family also has made millions by investing in the semiconductor firm Micron Technologies, according to the magazine. J.R. Simplot, which bowed out of fresh potatoes in 2002, in May announced the launch of its trans fat-free Infinity french fry. The fries, introduced during a period of slowed fresh sales and increasing obesity concerns, also boast fewer calories than the company’s traditional fried products.

The processor completed the closure of its Heyburn, Idaho, plant about a year ago, citing poor market conditions for the decision. The company has 10 plants in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, North Dakota, Canada, China and Australia.

The supplier category’s runner-up is Carl Lindner, 85, and family, with an estimated $1.8 billion.

Though Lindner’s investments have focused on more than the food industry, he controlled Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International Inc. for more than 15 years. He retired from the company’s board of directors in May 2002.

The financier invested a hefty stake in European markets, where banana quotas and high-dollar ships helped lead the company to bankruptcy and restructuring. With Lindner at the helm, Chiquita acquired more than $1 billion in debt.

Lindner and family members, who started with an ice cream store in 1940, built the United Dairy Farmers chain to 220 stores, according to Forbes. The family now has interests in insurance, banking and the Cincinnati Reds baseball team.

Rounding out the short list of suppliers and distributors is David Murdock, who purchased Dole Food Co. Inc., Westlake Village, Calif., in March 2003. He made the list with $1.7 billion.

Also a product of successful enterprise in the 1940s, Murdock made his start in the real estate business after he left the U.S. Army. He now estimates that he’s taken 12 companies private.

Though he and his family had controlled 24% of Dole, where he became chairman and chief executive officer, Murdock bought the remaining shares in a $2.5 billion buyout. Murdock has been with the company since the mid-1980s.

In October 2003, Murdock said his immediate focus for Dole would be on health. The 81-year-old eats no animal fat or saturated fat, and he considers himself a “fish vegetarian.”

At the retail end, the following also made the Forbes list:

  • Ronald Burkle, 51, with ties to Fred Meyer, Jurgensen’s and Ralph’s.

  • Charles Butt, 66, chairman of the San Antonio-based H.E. Butt.

  • Charles Munger, 80, who has a stake in discounter Costco Wholesale.

  • Joyce Raley Teel, 73, owner of Sacramento, Calif.-based grocery store chain Raley’s.

The eight Wal-Mart billionaires round out the grocery business concerns, with the five top spots going to the widow and children of Sam Walton: Helen Walton, 85; S. Robson Walton, 60; John Walton, 58; Jim Walton, 56; and Alice Walton, 55.

The five took spots four through eight among Forbes’ richest Americans.

The three other Wal-Mart billionaires are Ann Walton Kroenke, 54; Nancy Walton Laurie, 53; and 68-year-old Robert McLane Jr.