Snake River Archive

Meet the Partners: Kay Riley

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 @ 08:08 PM
posted by Tiffany

Kay RileyKay Riley, former president of the National Onion Association (NOA), is no stranger to the produce industry. Living in Fruitland, Idaho, he has over 30 years of involvement in the onion industry. Professionally, Kay is the manager of Snake River Produce Co. LLC, in Nyssa, Ore., sharing ownership with Ken Teramura, Ross Nishihara, Les Ito, Reid Saito and Pat Takasugi, the former director of agriculture for the State of Idaho. Riley, Teramura, Nishihara, Ito and Saito were the original partners, each owning an equal share. In 2003, Teramura sold half of his interest to Takasugi.

A Payson, Utah native, Kay has been managing Snake River Produce in Nyssa, Ore., since 1999, when the onion packing operation was purchased from  Muir-Roberts Co. Kay’s earlier training in the packing and shipping business came from his personal involvement with Muir-Roberts.

Learned How to Work
The son of Howard and Shirley Riley, the NOA president grew up on a farm, where apples, cherries, peaches, raspberries, rhubarb and Christmas trees were the crops of choice. He and his brother, Alan, 21 months his senior, learned the value of work from a wise father who gave them opportunities to earn their own spending money. “As a kid, I remember a carnival  that was going to take place at our grade school,” Kay smiles. “When I asked dad for some money, he said I could earn some by piling brush for 25 cents per row. What we called “brush” was the trimmings from the pruning of our fruit trees. That’s how Alan and I earned our spending money.” The boys’ grandfather was Bob Roberts, a partner with Ed Muir in Muir-Roberts Co., a fruit and vegetable packing and shipping business that got its start in the 1920s in Salt Lake City, but over the years divisions were added. One was in Payson, Utah, where they packed apples, tart and sweet cherries and peaches; another was in Provo, Utah, where the focus was on sweet and tart cherries; a third division was in Rigby, Idaho, where the partners packed potatoes; and a fourth was Nyssa and Ontario, Ore., where the produce was onions and potatoes.

“Muir-Roberts has been involved with a variety of different crops. It has enjoyed a long history in the onion business,” Kay notes.

On the other side of his family, Kay’s grandmother was a Winegar, and her father was instrumental in breeding and growing the Winegar strain of Sweet Spanish onions. As a child she frequently could be found in the fields weeding onions and other work associated with growing the crop. Her father had served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in Spain and before coming home had packaged up some Spanish onion seed, later propagated in Bountiful, Utah. The seed strain eventually became better known under the name of “Utah Strain Sweet Spanish onions.”

After finishing high school in 1971, Kay continued his education for a year and a half at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

A Fateful Decision
“I had a temporary summer job as a laborer for a plumber,” he remembers, “and I earned a bunch of money intending to take some time off from school and spend the fall hunting. Meanwhile in 1973, there was a bumper crop of apples in Utah, and so until the hunting season got under way, “I told my dad I would help him out during the apple harvest.” One day, while taking a load of apples to Muir-Roberts in Payson, Bob Wright, the manager there, approached me and said: ‘Kay, you’re not doing anything. Why don’t you come and help us out for a couple of weeks?’”

After agreeing to the proposition, he ended up working there for one month short of 26 years.

In the beginning, Kay drove forklift and did many of the ordinary jobs connected with a packing shed. A year later, in 1974, he was promoted to assistant manager. Later, in 1979, when Muir-Roberts opened its Corinne onion division, Kay was named manager and moved to northern Utah. The Company also handled tart and sweet cherries and peaches from the Perry and Willard, Utah area.

“We also had two or three other small cherry operations going during the summer time,” Kay recalls. “Everything was in the Brigham City-Corinne area. I lived in north Ogden and for about 15 years drove to Brigham City each day. The fruit deal was mainly in Perry and Willard. And then we packed onions in Corinne as well as sold onions for a number of other growers in the Tremonton, Bear River City, Corinne and Davis County areas.”

Shortly after Kay’s grandfather, Bob Roberts, one of the founders of Muir-Roberts Co. died in 1987, Riley was appointed to serve on the company’s Board of Directors. In 1993, he moved to Salt Lake City to serve in the Company’s sales office. There he gained additional experience selling onions from Muir-Roberts’ Nyssa, Oregon onion facility and apples from the company’s packing shed in nearby Payson. By 1995, he had been promoted to vice president of operations.

Helped Put Together Snake River Produce
“In 1999, I sold my stock in Muir-Roberts and joined with Ken Teramura, Ross Nishihara, Les Ito and Reid Saito in purchasing Muir-Roberts’ onion packing facility in Nyssa, Ore.,” Kay recalls, adding that it was one of the major decisions of his life.

Teramura, Nishihara, Ito and Saito, all growers, grew the bulk of the onions packed and shipped through the plant, while Riley assumed the responsibility of managing the onion shed.

Was it a good move? “No question about it,” Kay feels. “All of my partners are tremendous individuals. They support the company, and we have been successful to this point.” Kay has served in many roles during his time in the Idaho-Eastern Oregon region – including Idaho-Oregon Fruit & Vegetable Association President.

Kay and his wife, Karen, are the parents of four children: Natalie, married and living in Clinton, Utah; Mark, married and living in Ogden, Utah; Candice, married and living in Boise, Idaho; and Brett, currently attending BYU. They have a growing number of grandchildren.

Adapted from an interview with Onion World.

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