Bill Ramsey’s rags to riches story has to be one of the most
inspirational you’ll ever hear. Proudly calling himself an Okie,
he and his family were the epitome of John Steinbeck’s “The
Grapes of Wrath.” From those humble beginnings, Ramsey ended up
partners in one of the world’s largest vegetable packing
companies. Educational degrees didn’t pave his way. Hard work
and an insatiable desire to learn all there was about the
industry did. As a youth who once picked in the fields, he had
an inferiority complex. But that only drove him harder to
succeed. Not one to hoard, he has shared his spoils with the
community he helped build, and played an integral part in making
the National Steinbeck Center a reality in Salinas, California.
Ramsey: an Ag Leader close to his Roots
rock is a sandstone outcropping in the blonde Sierra de Salinas
hills. Carved by water and weather, it looks like a castle. Some
say that John Steinbeck played knight to his damsel sister there
in a shack at the base of the rock.
There is another, smaller stand of spires and turrets nearby,
beneath which the Marlene and Bill Ramsey home sits. It is an
impressive home with a vaulted ceiling that pokes into the sky.
Its windows frame the lioness hillsides of Corral de Tierra and
the golfing greens that have tamed her.
In this house is a library that cradles well-read copies of
nearly every book Steinbeck wrote. Moreover, when Bill tells the
story of his family, it seems they drove right off the pages of
“The Grapes of Wrath.”
In 1930, his parents sold their failing farm, piled all nine
children into a Model B Ford and drove out of the Dust Bowl to
California, the land of hope. Not long after they settled in the
Salinas Valley, they had two more children. Bill was second to
the last. And his story of the rise from poverty to agricultural
and community leader is remarkable.
Ramsey, a trim 71-year-old, settles into a chair and his Paul
Newman blue eyes dance with stories . . .
While his parents worked in the packing sheds, Bill would haul
ice in his little red wagon – right past what would become the
National Steinbeck Center. “I can stand on the center’s steps
and see that little boy still,” says the board member.
Over time, he learned all he could about the bounty that grows
in the fertile womb of the long valley. He conducted business
with a handshake, as people did in those days, and with little
more than a high school education, he became one of the giants
in the produce industry.
Do you mind being called an Okie?
A: Not at all. I am an Okie! When life was simple you could call
someone an Okie and give them a nickname and nobody got mad,
sued anyone or went to jail . . . Our family was poor but was
never without dignity. The name Ramsey was known by everybody in
town. Nobody got in trouble or went to prison. Okie? I wear it
as a badge.
Q: So, how did you grow from seedling to big sprout?
A: After the Navy, I had one child and no money. So I took a
part-time job at a packing company owned by H.W. Mann. After six
months, when I was getting ready to return to school, he said,
“Bill, you have a knack for this business. If you want to stay,
and if we’re a success, you’ll get your share of that success.”
I became his partner, and all the things he said came true.
Q: And you’ve been running ever since?
A: Actually, I’ve also been a long-distance runner for 24 years.
I record my distances and I’ve run 18,000 miles: in the Boston
Marathon, Big Sur Marathon, Spreckels, Hong Kong - where I got
lost - the wall of China, etc.
A: I want to be healthy. (Laughs) I have a type-A personality.
Q: As a kid who lived in the Alisal district, you say coming
into town was culture shock?
A: I’d meet kids from other districts and find out they had
wealth. You’re aware your parents work for these people. When I
met my wife, Marlene, (at Salinas High School) she was one of
those rich people I wondered about. It’s a little humbling.
Q: What do you remember of the Steinbeck controversy?
A: . . . We kind of hooked ourselves to Steinbeck’s star, when
he became a Pulitzer Prize winner. We’re guilty of trying to
spin off of his recognition and success. But, in doing so, we
have brought a lot of additional success to his name.
Q: Your most backbreaking job?
A: I did pick strawberries and pit apricots in my junior-high
years and it was backbreaking.
Q: What kind of contact have you had with field workers?
A: Plenty. I’ve been in produce 48 years and have had as many as
500, mostly Hispanic, employees. I learned to love the Hispanic
people and their work ethic. Their backgrounds were probably
just as humble as mine.
Q: Should we pause, while eating, and consider everything it
took to bring us this food?
A: When you are involved in growing things, even though you’re
not a farmer, you appreciate everything . . .
Q: Of the 35 vegetables your company packs, which do you
A: I love them all. I may love spinach a little less. And, heck,
until I came to the broccoli business in ‘55 I’m not sure I knew
what broccoli was. We (family) lived in a world of potatoes,
liver and gravy. Now I’m enamored by broccoli.
Q: Why does iceberg lettuce sell better than more colorful
and nutrient rich greens?
A: Good question. It makes a nice salad. It’s not as prominent
as it was, since the advent of red, butter, etc., lettuces. And
romaine has really come on big time.
Q: Produce people:
a) play hard
b) work hard
c) are a clique
d) are down to earth
A: (a), (b), and (d). They might look like a clique from the
outside but they invest everything they have in the business and
take lots of risk. If you’re going to be in this business a long
time, you’d better not lie, cheat or steal or you’ll get a bad
Q: What will we eat when farmland only grows buildings?
A: It won’t happen that way. We have more farmland in this
valley today than 49 years ago. When I came to Mann, acreage
yielded less than half what it does today. There are always ways
to come up with better ideas, such as hothouses. When you breed
some products they come more concentrated.
Q: How has your definition of wealth changed?
A: People say the harder you work the luckier you become. I feel
so lucky it’s almost scary. But I never lose sight of where I
came from and who I am. There were times I was driven by that
inferiority complex. I just wanted to succeed in the race . . .
As I get a little older, I want to make sure I do the right
things for the right reasons. You go through life pushing
yourself, but somewhere along the way you receive enough to get
off that horse. I’ve gotten good at raising money now. Jim
Gattis and I asked for $500,000 for the Steinbeck Center to be
built. He said, “How does it feel – a couple of Okies out here
trying to get money from Pat Tynan Chapman?” And guess what she
said? “How about $1 million?” I learned that you have the
ability to do things for the community because of your
Q: Your top moral?
A: I’d like to say integrity. Everyone wants to be well thought