(Aug. 15) Herbert Lee, who, as founder of Lee Brands Inc., Salinas, Calif., became one of the world’s foremost asparagus growers, died July 23 at his home in Oceanside. He was 82.

Born Dec. 23, 1919, in Arkadelphia, Ark., Lee moved to the California Imperial Valley city of El Centro as a child and eventually would become instrumental in the development of the fresh asparagus industry.

Widely known as a leader in agricultural exporting, Lee rose to notoriety during the formative years of corporate farming in the Golden State, remembered long-time friend and partner Ed McGrew.

With Lee Brands, the former president of the Purex Corp. subsidiary Freshpict Foods Inc., Salinas, became particularly well-regarded thanks to his work with air-shipped asparagus shipments to Japan.

In the mid-1980s, Lee was one of the first to ship a full Boeing 747 — and its 5,000 30-pound asparagus crates — to the Empire of the Sun, said Jens Hutchens, who met Lee in 1971. Once, in the 1970s, Lee even toured asparagus canneries in China, where the only way in was via an off-road vehicle, McGrew said.

“He was one of the early pioneers in the fresh green asparagus industry,” said Hutchens, chief executive officer of JMB International Inc., El Centro, also an asparagus grower.

At the time Lee presided over Freshpict Foods, the firm included more than 50,000 acres of diversified vegetable and field crops in California, Arizona and Colorado.

“One of his early goals was to have year-round supplies of iceberg lettuce,” Hutchens said. “And he was way before a lot of people.”

Lee Brands — purchased from Lee about 15 years ago — markets green onions, radishes, thornless artichokes, snow peas, daikon and, of course, asparagus. Today, it is a privately held, locally owned company whose owners are agri-business investors.

“Herbert was a giant in the industry,” McGrew said. “He was one of the leading asparagus producers worldwide. He was innovative in everything he did, in all phases of growing and processing.”

In addition, Lee’s work extended past his own interests, where he freely gave of his time to various civic groups.

Lee helped establish the El Centro-based Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association, as well as the Imperial Valley Farmers Association. He also served on the Western Growers Association, Newport Beach, Calif., board of directors, from 1962-68 and again in 1973.

Various membership rolls over the course of Lee’s life would show his name on the following boards: El Centro School District, Imperial Valley College, El Centro Regional Hospital, Salvation Army and Imperial Valley Farm Bureau. He was a trustee at the El Centro First United Methodist Church and president of the El Centro Kiwanis Club and the Imperial Valley Historical Society.

Lee, an avid golfer, even teamed with McGrew to build Lakeview Golf Course, where he spent much time planning and playing host to golf tournaments for charities in the region.

Truly, Lee did it all.

But, McGrew said, “Asparagus was his deal. It was his life.”