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From family fight to jail cell: SK Foods and the fall of Frederick Scott Salyer

June 17, 2010 |  2:53 pm

TomatoAbout this time of year, heavy trucks rumbled along the Central Valley roads day and night, with trailers teeming with tomatoes. There was always such a bounty, the shoulders of California State Route 41 turned red where the trucks pulled off to reach the processing plant in Lemoore, Calif. -- a plant that the Salyer family once owned.

The family's patriarch, E. Clarence Salyer, came to the Central Valley from Hiltons, Va., in 1919 with dreams of joining the cotton boom in Tulare. Serendipity altered his fate: He boarded the wrong train. Instead of Tulare, the stocky man with a scrunched-up face stepped off a Santa Fe passenger train in Corcoran, 50 miles south of Fresno, a dusty outpost of 1,101.

There, the family built an empire out of cotton. And decades later, Clarence's son Fred and his grandson Frederick Scott would launch a tomato processing company called SK Foods.

Initially, father and son had approached another California agribusiness mogul: Charles E. Kern, chief executive of canning giant Kern Industries and the man who oversaw expansion of the family-owned Kern Foods Inc. The Kerns signed on to the project. The partners named the fledgling company after both families.

But before that first plant in Lemoore was completed and running in 1990, Kern was diagnosed with cancer. He and his family pulled out of the enterprise. (Kern died in 1991.) That left Fred and Scott Salyer alone, without the benefit of a well-funded financial partner. Their feuding, which had grown over the years, intensified.

For three generations, the Salyers fought one another in court to control multimillion-dollar corporations and, at its peak, oversaw a land empire three times the size of San Francisco. Yet the dynasty ultimately couldn't withstand the infighting, particularly the falling-out between Scott and Fred. To follow the tale, read more here.

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: The former SK Foods processing plant in Lemoore, Calif., which is now owned by a Singapore firm. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times