The Deardorff family has been growing fruits and vegetables in Southern California since the 1930s. But it was no foregone conclusion that Tom Deardorff II, president of Oxnard-based Deardorff Family Farms, would enter the family business.

After college, Deardorff, 41, went to law school. Then he practiced law for four years. He enjoyed it, but Deardorff eventually felt the pull his great-grandfather, grandfather, father, uncle and other Deardorffs before him felt.

Tom Deardorff II, Deardorff Family Farms“I took a circuitous route,” he said. “I wanted to try something else, gain some experience and bring that back to the table later on, if I decided to. But I gave (growing) a try, and fell in love with it.”

Deardorff doesn’t regret his detour in the legal world. His experience has been invaluable in handling contracts, negotiations and other aspects of the modern-day produce industry.

“It’s a lot different from the way my father and grandfather did business — on a handshake.”

Deardorff’s legal training also honed his critical thinking and analytical skills, giving him a different perspective on the produce industry.

That perspective has served him well not only as president of Deardorff, a position he has held since 2001, but as an active volunteer in industry organizations.

Deardorff’s industry service includes the chairmanship of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, an organization Deardorffs have been serving for four generations, extending all the way back to Deardorff’s great-grandfather.

“It was something that was very highly encouraged by my father and uncle,” Deardorff said. “They said, ‘You’ll get more than you give back,’ and that’s definitely been the case for me.”

In April, Deardorff was chosen to serve as vice chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association’s grower-shipper board.

Not enough sons and daughters of California grower-shippers are following in their forefathers’ footsteps, said Rob Roy, president and general counsel of the Camarillo, Calif.-based Ventura County Agricultural Association, another industry organization Deardorff has lent his time to.

Deardorff is a notable exception.

“Tom and his cousin Scott — they’ve done a fabulous job,” Roy said.

Through his industry service, Deardorff has been on the front lines of several issues facing producers and marketers of fresh fruits and vegetables.

He doesn’t hesitate to list the top five issues: labor, labor, labor, labor and labor. It’s only partly a joke. There are labor concerns, Deardorff said, at the field level, entry-level management level, middle management level — even at the executive level.

It’s a constant challenge, he said, for Deardorff Family Farms and other growers to find qualified workers at all levels — ironic, Deardorff said, considering the high unemployment rates. Finding, keeping and nurturing industry talent will be a major priority for the produce industry in coming years, he said.

Fortunately for Deardorff and his company, they’ve been fortunate when it’s come to finding good people. In fact, Deardorff said the thing he’s proudest of at this point in his career is his staff.

“We’re a midtier, medium-sized business that doesn’t have a brand that attracts people, but we’ve been able to assemble a team of people who are fun, energetic, passionate and good at what they do.”