Monroe Phillips, a fixture in California fresh produce industry for more than a half century, died July 21. He was 85.

 â€œHe was certainly a pioneer,” said his son, Doug Phillips, owner of Phillips Farms and Phillips Farms Marketing, Visalia, Calif. “He was certainly a giant in the kiwifruit industry.”

A native of Arkansas, Monroe Phillips moved to the Visalia area with his family when he was a child. After graduating from high school and serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Phillips began farming in 1950, growing citrus, figs and pole tomatoes.

It was Doug Phillips, however, who led his father into kiwifruit.

“I decided to plant a few acres of kiwifruit in 1973,” Doug Phillips said. “He told me they would never grow in the San Joaquin Valley, but they did exceptionally well.”

By 1975, the Phillips planted more than 80 acres of kiwifruit.

Monroe Phillips was elected to the California Kiwifruit Commission’s board of directors and chaired the board for several years during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Doug Phillips said. When his father stepped down, Doug Phillips followed him onto the board and was subsequently board chairman for a decade.

Monroe Phillips also was active in the International Kiwifruit Organization and traveled to major kiwifruit growing countries around the world.

“His friends always said he could grow just about anything, and he tried to grow nearly everything,” Doug Phillips said. “Farming was his life until he got into thoroughbred horses about ten years ago.”

Monroe Phillips’ first name was Leonard, but the California farming community knew him as Monroe or Mon.

“He was never called Leonard, unless it was by my mother when she was upset with him for buying another ranch or something,” Doug said.

Services were July 25.

Monroe Phillips was preceded in death by his wife, Kathryn.  Survivors include sons Michael and Doug, and a daughter, Patricia Phillips.

California kiwifruit grower Monroe Phillips dies