With a farewell party planned for Saturday, June 4, at the Nyssa, OR, company he’s managed for decades, one of the Treasure Valley’s leading onion men is stepping down at Snake River Produce.
Kay Riley, who’s been general manager of Snake River Produce since its founding in 1999, leaves behind more than three decades of contributions to the onion industry but takes that many decades’ worth of memories. Among the various hats, he’s worn during his career are those of president of the National Onion Association and current chairman of the Idaho-E. Oregon Onion Committee. He’s also sat on numerous industry boards and commissions over the years, working with elected and appointed officials on a wide range of issues and establishing himself as a respected industry figure.
He also helped steer Snake River Produce to its prominence. For more than a half-century before SRP was founded in Oregon, the original Nyssa facility was part of Muir-Roberts, a Salt Lake City-based company. That branch of Muir-Roberts was sold in 1999 to Riley, who had been MR’s vice president of operations, and his partners.
Kay reflected on the past 30-plus years for OnionBusiness and said, “The most significant thing in my career was the opportunity to buy in and the creation of Snake River Produce. I previously had worked for 26 years for Muir-Roberts Co. Inc, a Salt Lake City based shipper of fruits and vegetables as well as a wholesaler and player in the foodservice business. At the time I was doing apple sales out of Utah and onion sales out of Oregon.
“The real significant part was to form the business with four other of the finest individuals you could ever associate with, Reid Saito, Ken Teramura, Les Ito, and Ross Nishihara, all onion growers in the Treasure Valley. The four of them grew the onions, and I ran the business and sold the onions. They were always loyal supporters of Snake River Produce, and we have grown over the years and become successful, with the addition of new partners over time Pat Takasugi, Randy and Brian Kameshige, Kevin Corn, and Chris Payne.”
Kay continued, “Pat died in 2012, and his wife Suzanne has carried on for him. It has been a great opportunity to work with and for them.”
And he said, “I would say moving to the Treasure Valley and becoming involved in the industry my career kind of blossomed with a lot of opportunity for leadership locally and nationally.”
We asked Kay what he considered the best and worst events of his career, and he said, “I think one of the highlights that we achieved was having Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner of the FDA, here and educating him on the irrigation water and the success we have had with FDA getting them to change and reassess the use of our water. We taught him how to set siphon tubes.”
He went on to say, “An additional highlight was the formation of Certified Onions Inc, or COI, which helped us deal with some local issues here of growers using off-label pesticides.”
There have also been trade missions and travel to meet with governmental officials. “We went on a trip with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tokyo, and we have made lots of trips to DC as well.”
The worst event was the death of Kay’s longtime friend and fellow onion man Garry Bybee of Fiesta Farms, who died two years ago. Kay said, “I miss him every day.”
There have been good and bad along the way within the industry that has been Kay’s professional life. Certainly, it’s changed, and we asked Kay to tell us some of the most notable differences between the late ‘90s and now. He said, “The industry is continually changing, which makes it hard to pick out the biggest. Some of them are the expense, emphasis on food safety, and the consolidation of buying groups. The emphasis on food safety is both good and bad. We certainly want a safe food supply but, it seems a little overdone with baseless food safety recalls.”
He explained, “My own impression of the last two onion recalls is that they are nearly witch hunts with no solid evidence. If you evaluate the food supply, it is the safest and most abundant in the history of the world, and to create havoc with fear of eating fresh fruits and vegetables when we unabashedly promote the use of alcohol, legalization of marijuana, the overall ill health effects from fast-food restaurants and the overall diets of the American consumer is out of balance. I would prefer to see the emphasis on the things that truly are killing people and making them sick.”
Has his philosophy been affected as the industry has changed? Kay said not really.
“My philosophy hasn’t changed a lot. I believe in hard work, and if you keep your nose to the grindstone, you can pretty much work your way out of any problem. It is difficult, but we all need to be resilient. I have a deep faith in God and believe he is in control of this world and the universe. I wish people would put aside their personal interests and desires and remember him more.”
Kay Riley said his lifetime in the onion industry has been a rewarding one.
“The thing I am taking with me is a lifetime of memories and great friends and experiences. I have been and done more than I ever would have imagined, and I particularly appreciate the people that I have worked with over time and the mentors that I had in my early career.
“I learned a lot from a lot of people. I appreciate the friendship and dedication of my partners and my employees and the many associates that I have in and out of the industry.” And, he said, “I certainly would be remiss to not mention my dear wife Karen and her love and support over all these years.”
A retirement party will be held to honor Kay on June 4 from 1-4 pm at Snake River Produce Company, 810 Idaho Street, Nyssa, Oregon 97913. The official invite was provided to OnionBusiness.com for distribution and is shown below.