Harris Ranch, buyer quiet on details but stress family-owned roots in wake of sale

The sale of Harris Ranch Beef Co., a well-known brand in San Joaquin Valley business and agriculture built up over decades, to Hanford-based Central Valley Meat Co. seems to have come as a surprise to many observers.

Some key questions about the deal remain unanswered. The two companies declined to reveal the price and terms of the sale in their April 9 announcement. And there’s been no disclosure about why John Harris, whose parents Jack and Teresa Harris established Harris Ranch in 1937, is selling the beef operations – including a slaughterhouse and processing plant near Selma and the Harris Feeding Co. feedlot near Coalinga.

The Harris Ranch Beef website states that the company has more than $400 million in annual sales; it also notes that the feedlot of almost 800 acres along Interstate 5 in western Fresno County has a capacity of up to 250,000 cattle.

The sale does not include other Harris Farms enterprises: the Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant off Interstate 5 near Coalinga; Harris Farms’ horse division with ranches in Coalinga and Sanger; and farming operations for a range of crops including nuts, vegetables, citrus and grapes.

Sanger resident John Harris, owner of Harris Farms and Harris Ranch, announced on April 9, 2019 that he is selling Harris Ranch Beef Co. and Harris Feeding Co. to Hanford-based Central Valley Meat Co. Harris is seen at the 2014 ceremony where he was honored as Fresno County Agriculturist of the Year. JOHN WALKER Fresno Bee file

Harris, 75, has so far declined to comment about his decision to sell or whether he had the company up for sale before negotiations on the deal with Central Valley Meat. Dave Wood, chairman of the Harris beef operations who will remain with Harris Farms as its president, could not be reached. A call to Brian Coelho, president of Central Valley Meat Holding Co. in Hanford, was responded to with an email from the public relations firm that announced the sale.

Protecting long-term interests

In last week’s written statement, Harris was quoted as saying the deal “cements a future for two family-owned beef operations to continue to thrive. … Brian has a proven track record of growing businesses, and under his leadership Harris Ranch Beef can continue its long and storied legacy.”

Late last week, a follow-up statement attributed to a source familiar with the two companies said that “John Harris is interested in protecting the long-term interests and wellbeing of both his employees and the iconic brand he spent a lifetime developing, and bringing together Harris Ranch Beef with Central Valley Meat Company allowed him to do this.”

The statement said that Harris saw in Coelho “a respect for the value of the Harris Ranch Beef brand, a shared vision of what it means to run a family-owned business, and the same commitment to maintaining a robust and enduring cattle industry in California.”

Harris Ranch Beef and Central Valley Meat will operate independently under the combined ownership of Central Valley Meat Holding Co.

A truck pulling a livestock trailer leaves Central Valley Meat Co. in Hanford, Calif., in a 2012 file photo. The company is buying Coalinga-based Harris Ranch Beef Co. in a sale announced April 9, 2019. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee Staff Photo

Central Valley Meat history

According to the Central Valley Meat Co. website, Coelho’s father started Coelho Meat Company in 1981. Central Valley Meat Co. was established in 1993. Its brands include products marketed to retailers and food-service companies under the Western Premium Beef, Blue Diamond Beef and Central Valley Meat brands. Another of its companies, CLW Foods Inc., markets ground beef under the Moran’s brand. The parent company also includes Coelho Meat Co, a cattle purchasing and feeding business, and Triple C Trucking.

The Hanford company has been a supplier to the National School Lunch Program. But the plant has experienced difficulties over the past decade. In 2012, animal-rights activists released undercover video taken inside the plant showing instances of animal cruelty that prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withdraw its meat inspectors from the plant for about a week. In 2013, the company recalled more than 29 tons of ground beef destined for school lunches because of concerns that it might contain small pieces of plastic.

In 2014, the plant was briefly closed by the USDA because of unspecified unsanitary conditions. And in 2015, the USDA withdrew its inspectors after an employee reportedly impeded food safety inspections at the plant.

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.