The interstate cowboy
Sept./Oct. 2006 California Country magazine
By Jim Morris
Harris Ranch is an icon of Interstate 5, serving burgers and steaks to more than a half million travelers every year.
John and Carole Harris love to unwind and entertain at their home along the picturesque Kings River.
As you zip along Interstate 5, just before you think neon lights and suburbia are lost forever, it appears: Harris Ranch, a veritable oasis among the miles of fields, orchards and rolling hills deep in the San Joaquin Valley. The Coalinga resort and restaurant, about a three-hour drive from either San Francisco or Los Angeles, is an icon of the interstate, serving burgers and steaks to more than a half million travelers every year.
Few who stop for food, fuel or lodging, or who spy the endless sea of cattle in the nearby feedlot, know much about the man behind it all. He's John Harris, a California success story with diversity and drive as boundless as the vistas just off the interstate.
What Harris has accomplished--from building the reputation of his brand of beef to supplying food to customers across the United States and internationally--is in complete contrast to the man himself, who remains unpretentious, warm and approachable despite his success.
"It's similar to the line that 'I'm humble, but I have a lot to be humble about,'" Harris said with a chuckle. "I don't view myself as much of a star at all. I'm just trying to do a good job with what I'm doing and hopefully at the end of the day feel like I've accomplished something."
Harris, 63, is the latest in a long tradition of family farming, though the road to prosperity was rocky at times. His grandfather, J.A. Harris, established one of the first cotton gins in the Imperial Valley in 1916. Three decades later, the elder Harris and his wife, Kate, moved operations to the San Joaquin Valley. Soon thereafter, John Harris' father, Jack, and his wife, Teresa, set out on their own, drilling wells and transforming leased land that had been used for sheep grazing into flourishing fields of cotton and grain.
Jack Harris died in 1981, at the age of 66, leaving his son assets in land and cattle that were plummeting in value. Even though he had been a key player in the overall operation for more than a decade before his father's untimely death, John Harris was suddenly confronted with still greater responsibility. Because of the estate plan, he acquired a massive debt as interest rates approached 20 percent and faced the prospect of paying more in inheritance taxes than the assets were worth. Harris was deeded control of the company but had to buy out his stepmother, who was deeded the rest of the assets, valued at millions of dollars.
Since meeting this immense challenge, the family has expanded and enhanced all operations, including growing as many as 35 commodities, ranging from almonds to watermelons.
I-5 was built in the early 1970s and the Harris family established their famous Harris Ranch Restaurant in 1977 where the interstate meets Highway 198, some 185 miles from San Francisco and 200 miles from Los Angeles. It has become a succulent showcase for beef and produce grown at the farm and feedlot. The restaurant has won numerous culinary awards and last year was ranked among the top 100 independent restaurants in a nationwide survey.
There are four places to eat at Harris Ranch: the elegant Steakhouse, the Jockey Club, which is a favorite of local residents and ranchers, and the more casual Ranch Kitchen and Horseshoe Bar.
Harris Ranch Inn--genial and clean with a Spanish-style exterior--was built in 1987 and has been expanded to more than 150 rooms. Harris' wife of 40 years, Carole, designed the rooms with all the features she would expect in a quality hotel, including Ralph Lauren fabrics for the curtains and bedspreads.
While the inn boasts comfortable, affordable accommodations and a 25-meter, heated Olympic-style pool, the sizzle for many visitors is found in the food: refined, straightforward cooking with beef on center stage. Satisfied customers include local residents as well as tourists.
"I enjoy a good steak or I wouldn't come here to eat twice a week," said area cattle rancher Stephen Scribner, a familiar face at the Jockey Club for more than two decades. "I'm pretty picky about what I eat. I'm very happy to come here."
Mark Pearce of Paso Robles has been a regular for more than 10 years. "I've had steaks all over the United States and these are the best there are," he added.
Harris' restaurants are among the many discriminating businesses throughout the West to offer Harris Ranch Beef, which is also found at outlets including In-N-Out Burger and Albertsons, Costco and Safeway supermarkets. The Coalinga feedlot spans 700 acres and has up to 100,000 cattle at peak time, with a comprehensive management style that encompasses extensive recordkeeping, 20 full-time wranglers and high-tech feed and watering systems to keep the animals at their best.
On the other side of Fresno County, in the town of Selma, 800 workers are employed at a modern processing facility that produces 130 million pounds of beef a year.
John Harris oversees seven companies in all, from the inn, restaurant and beef division to 16,000 acres of crops in Fresno, Kern and San Joaquin counties. He has partnered with area farmer Stuart Woolf in a fast-growing business in Five Points that processes about 50 million pounds of almonds a year.
"I'm lucky," Woolf said. "With John, I have a great friend, partner, mentor and leader. John is a very approachable, normal kind of guy with a great sense of humor. You would never know that he is running truly a great, successful business, one that he's very proud of. He doesn't wear it on his sleeve."
In another effort to reach as many markets as possible, Harris Farms has an expanding organic program that began more
Harris frequently commutes between ranch sites via airplane, piloting his own Cessna 210. He finds serenity at his elegant home, expertly decorated by his wife. It features a priceless view of the Kings River and is complete with 18th-century English and French Chinoiserie furniture, as well as copies of the Trelliage murals at Schonnbrunn Palace in Austria that come together in one impressive showcase.
On close inspection, their French-style home features plenty of evidence of the fruits of their labor, with paintings of cattle and solid silver sculptures of foods like artichokes and garlic used as accent pieces.
There's also action just outside the door, as an expert team trains young racehorses. This passion began early for Harris, who watched his father and grandfather enjoy the exquisite animals at the racetrack.
Harris at two ranches breeds and trains about 500 thoroughbreds at a time, sporting colorful names such as Lucky JH, Red State, Brite Sunny Day, Rush to Justice, El Don and Sounds Like a Plan. His list of California champions includes Alphabet Kisses, Work the Crowd, Moscow Burning, Moscow Changes, Super High, Teresa Mc and Soviet Problem, which came within a split second of winning the 1994 Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship.
Another electrifying equine is Excess Temptations, which Harris co-owns with All-Star pitcher Brad Penny of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"Brad bought part of this horse and it really did exceed our expectations," Harris said. "He won the first time out and came back and won a few more pretty good races since then. It's nice to see someone who's new into the game get a horse that's nice and that hopefully will go on and do well in the future."
Managing such diverse businesses may seem daunting, but the rancher said he finds every facet of his business challenging and rewarding.
"It's like having a bunch of children," he said. "You love them all and they're all different, but there are different things that you like or are concerned about. It all works out. Horses are really my passion, my real avocation, but all of agriculture is really an avocation also. I like the idea of producing crops and beef cattle, and all of the friendships you develop."
Harris has seamlessly managed his varied portfolio, all with little fanfare. His achievement was recognized in August, as he became the latest recipient of the California State Fair's prestigious California Agriculturalist of the Year designation. While Harris said he was delighted to be honored, the real reward comes in continually challenging himself to attain higher goals.
"Part of happiness is striving for things," he said. "For me to really be happy, I need to have the challenge of solving problems and making things better. I would rather achieve something and continue to make a difference than rest on my laurels."
Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.