Filice builds farming success in California

Kay Filice faced a life-changing decision nearly 20 years ago when her husband died after a three-year battle with cancer.

Her husband, Chuck Filice, was a second-generation vegetable farmer in the Central California county of San Benito and Kay, his wife of 21 years, was immersed in raising their three boys and doing volunteer and fund-raising work. She had no experience in running a business. Her only hands-on experience on a farm came back in her teenage years in her hometown of Fort Dodge when, as Kay McTigue, she worked on a detasseling crew one summer.

A rare form of colon cancer claimed Chuck’s life in 1998 and left her with two choices: Sell the farm — she got plenty of good offers — and start a new life with her boys. Or continue what his parents had started back in the 1940s and what Chuck had passionately developed.

Her decision: Continue operating the now-70-year-old farm — thereby honoring the legacy of her husband and providing continued employment for the 20 men who worked at Filice Farms at the time.

“Without their knowledge and experience, we wouldn’t have been able to carry on like we did,” she said. “We were all determined to make it work. I didn’t know how long I would do it, but we would give it a good shot. That was 19 years ago. We’re still giving it our best shot.”

As president and owner of Filice Farms, of Hollister, California, Filice was a quick study and in 2007 was the first woman to head the nearly 80-year-old Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, a powerful agricultural trade organization and lobbying group that represents the interests of nearly 300 farms, processing companies and ag-related businesses.

Filice Farms grows on 2,200 acres of land on California’s central coast where its staff of 35 grows and harvests specialty row crops as well as a cherry orchard. The row crops include a variety of all the lettuces, as well as spinach, arugula and mixed greens. In addition, Filice has a reputation for its colored peppers and sweet red onions. Other crops that round out the rotation include broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes and celery.

More than three million packages of Filice Farms’ crops — in cartons, sacks or clamshells — are produced annually. Filice Farms supplies both conventional and organic crops to shippers and retailers throughout the United States. About 15 to 20 percent of the crop is exported to other countries.

Like any good CEO, Kay Filice believes in her product and has become “an evangelist for fresh vegetables” and noted: To quote the president of Safeway, “If people would only realize the best medicine cabinet they have is in the produce aisle.”

“I want to use my position to educate the public,” she said. “The whole time I was involved with Grower Shipper, it gave me opportunity for a platform to speak to groups about the benefit of fruits and vegetables and their nutritional value. We do ag in the classroom and with the kids. There’s such an epidemic of child obesity and diabetes. Eating healthy, especially fruits and vegetables, is such an easy solution to many of the medical problems. It is something that is a passion with me.”

Mary Kay McTigue was born in Emmetsburg to Kathryn and Jerry McTigue, both now deceased. The family moved shortly thereafter to Pocahontas and then to Fort Dodge, where Kay (she dropped the use of Mary early on) entered fourth grade at Corpus Christi School. Her father sold insurance for Northwestern Mutual Life and her mom raised Kay and her three brothers — Tom, of Honolulu; John, of Hinsdale, Illinois; and Pat, of Plymouth, Minnesota.

After graduation from St. Edmond High School in 1966, she attended Clarke College (now Clarke University) in Dubuque, then an all-women’s Catholic college. She stayed at Clarke after graduation to work as an admissions counselor and left her job after a few years, deciding that California was where she would like to live.

She moved to San Francisco without a job in hand — “like a crazy person, something I wouldn’t do now” — and landed a 100 percent-commission marketing job. International Business Machines was one of her clients and asked her to come to work for them during one of her marketing sessions. She joined the IBM offices in San Jose and worked as a recruiter, traveling to major universities around the United States to recruit engineers.

She met Chuck Filice in 1976 at the wedding in Hollister of a mutual friend. His mother and father, Rose and Peter Filice, had started a small farming business in the mid-1940s, growing apricots, prunes and walnuts. Kay and Chuck were married in 1977 and, for the next three years, she commuted 60 miles to her job with IBM in San Jose before they started a family — they had three boys in a three-and-a-half-year span.

She left IBM to raise their boys — Tony, Pat and Chris — and Kay became heavily involved in the community — working with nonprofits, church activities, agriculture in the classroom and at a center for abused and abandoned children, while Chuck concentrated on operating the farm.

Kay’s mother moved to California after Kay’s father died in 1986 to be closer to her grandchildren. “We were very close,” Kay said. “When my husband passed, she was a critical part of our lives with the kids, and became like another parent to them. Full circle of fulfillment.” Her mother died in 2014.

Chuck contracted a rare form of colon cancer and died in 1998 after a three-year struggle. “He tried very, very hard and was prescribed experimental drugs — he had a young family to live for and he was very determined,” Kay said.”

Filice turned down offers from neighboring companies and bigger produce firms interested in buying Filice Farms, which farmed about 1,700 acres and grew peppers, onions and tomatoes. “Since then, we diversified a great deal, adding more land and rotating the crops every year — to be good stewards of the land,” she said. They added lettuces, spinaches, mixed greens, cauliflower and broccoli to the crop list.

“There was real pressure to make it work,” she said. “Just assuming the risk and responsibility was a big thing. Prior to that time, my only real exposure to farming was detasseling corn in Iowa. I knew about the threat of droughts, weather, diseases, labor disputes, but only through the eyes of my husband and from a distance. Talk about a crash course, it was a crash course for years. The key to succeeding were our employees, that and my family and my faith.”

Filice learned about managing employees and the new technology constantly added to farming. Turnover among the farm’s employees is “absolutely zero,” she said. “We treat our employees well and they are part of a team, and they sense that.”

She credits her Midwest upbringing for much of her success.

“I think my values, my work ethic to work hard and treat people the way they want to be treated, come from growing up in Fort Dodge — a Midwest ethic that I’m very proud of. I think going to all-women’s college prepared me to be independent and teaches you to stand on your own two feet. Independence and confidence that I can do this.”

In 2002, Filice was honored with the Ag Against Hunger Agricultural Woman of the Year Award and, in 2010, she was selected for the Woman of the Year Award for the 28th Assembly District in California.

She has a management team of three key employees — Mark Wright, Joe Newman and her youngest son, Chris. “I love what I’m doing. It’s exciting to work with these young managers,” she said. “I love going to work every day with them. And now that I have grandchildren, I take more time to be with them. I’m very involved in the community — on the board of managers of the YMCA and a board member of the Community Foundation of San Benito County.”

Her son Tony works in San Jose for the County of Santa Clara and son Pat is an attorney in Chicago. She has three grandchildren — Tessa and Charlie in Chicago, children of Pat and his wife Marjorie, and Gianna in Gilroy, daughter of Chris and his wife Kristin — who are expecting a second child in August.

Traveling is a big part of her life’s enjoyment, she said, “but I have every intention to stay in the business because I enjoy it so much.”