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An Air of Unease Over Cattle Empire

Fresno County rancher John Harris, owner of the largest feedlot in the state, is on guard against the threat that imported animal diseases could pose to his $150-million beef business.

April 22, 2001|MELINDA FULMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COALINGA, Calif. — John Harris' cattle empire looks like small potatoes compared with meat giants IBP Inc. and Excel Corp., but here the rancher is a cattle baron, controlling almost a quarter of all cattle slaughtered in the state.

At any given time, his feedlot off Interstate 5 in Fresno County holds 100,000 Herefords and Black Angus, enough cows to send hamburger patties to McDonald's and his signature steaks to California Safeway stores and have enough left over for the precooked meat dishes such as pot roast he's now selling in supermarkets across the country.

While ranchers in many parts of the world are coping with foot-and-mouth and "mad cow" diseases and fighting to preserve the family farm, Harris' $150-million beef business is thriving, buoyed by rising demand and prices.

But Harris hasn't been able to savor the recent red meat renaissance. The threat that foot-and mouth disease might enter the country has cast a shadow over his feedlot, the largest in the state.

Moreover, prices for the fruit, vegetables and nuts he grows on much of his 18,000 acres in west Fresno County have plunged while energy and water costs have surged, giving his farming division its third straight annual loss.

"Right now cattle is about the only profitable area," Harris says while patrolling the fields in his Ford Explorer.

Because Harris' empire is diverse, encompassing everything from cattle to racehorses to row crops to livestock feed to a three-star hotel and restaurant, he--unlike many other farmers--can weather cyclical price drops.

Indeed, Harris is one of the lucky few who have been able to turn a profit in California's slumping agricultural sector. But even he is cutting back, letting 5,000 acres of his farm lie fallow this year because of the water shortage and miserable prices for most crops.

He also was forced to lay off about 20 of his farming company's longtime employees, a move he had been delaying for a year or more.

"It was pretty tough because some people had been here a number of years," Harris says. "You're always hoping [prices] are going to come back. But this is just something we had to do."

The pressure to sustain his huge empire weighs heavily on Harris, because he knows his is one of the few places local people can find a job.

In these parts, he is legend, and his businesses--the Mediterranean-style hotel, the fancy steakhouse, the feedlot and the slaughter plant--are a lifeline to the three nearby communities of Coalinga, Huron and Avenal, combined population 30,000. Aside from a state prison, he is the largest single employer, with 1,500 on his payrolls.

The Harris empire operates under several corporate entities: There is Harris Farms Inc., the farming company; Harris Feeding Co., which runs the feedlot; Harris Ranch Beef Co.; Harris Farms Horse Division; and Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant.

But because so much of his business is tied up in his feedlot, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth would be devastating, both to Harris and to the community.

To guard against the disease, Harris has a team of 20 cowboys patrolling his pens each day, looking for signs of sickness, including telltale symptoms of foot-and-mouth such as blistering and lameness. Public tours of the feedlot have been canceled and a foot bath for disinfecting shoes has been put in front of the main gate.

Although the damage to the European beef industry from foot-and-mouth is helping to boost U.S. beef exports--by 5% to 10% according to some estimates--it's given only a small nudge to Harris' exports. Weak Asian currencies have cut into his Pacific business.

The domestic industry has a lot more to lose than to gain from the disease, he says. "I think it's negative for the business. If you have even 1% or 2% of the people say, 'Well, maybe we're going to eat less [beef],' it could have a fairly big impact nationwide."

Towns' Fortunes Grow With Ranch

Harris' 18,000-acre spread was developed by his father, Jack, in the 1930s as a grain, fruit and vegetable farm. In the ensuing decades, it grew to include the feedlot and a thoroughbred horse farm.

As the company's fortunes have grown, so have the economies of the neighboring towns. But the growth has come at a price.

"The smell [from the cows] can be overwhelming," Marilyn Gabriel, executive director of the Coalinga Chamber of Commerce and a 60-year resident of the town, says with a chuckle. "But it's something we just live with. It's just a part of our life."

Harris no longer lives near the feedlot. A decade ago he moved about 50 miles from the ranch his father started to a 6,000-acre expanse with a French chateau-style house along the Kings River east of Fresno.

He commutes to work in a Cessna 210, landing on an airstrip between the rows of tomatoes, asparagus, onions and other vegetables.

There's another airstrip outside Harris' steakhouse so customers can fly in for one of his $40-a-plate Black Angus beef dinners and sample his extensive California wine list.

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