Luther Khachigian, a politically influential central San Joaquin Valley farmer who advocated agricultural-friendly policies, died at 87 years old (photo courtesy Khachigian family)

Luther Khachigian, San Joaquin Valley Farmer with Strong Political Ties, Has Died

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By Bryant-Jon Anteola

FRESNO, Calif. (Fresno Bee) — Luther Khachigian, a politically influential central San Joaquin Valley farmer who advocated agricultural-friendly policies, died late last month. He was 87 years old when he passed away June 20. With strong political ties dating to President Richard Nixon’s tenure, Khachigian often fought for farmer-friendly policies with a no-hold-back approach. And he solely backed politicians who, too, were advocates of the agriculture industry. To those who weren’t farmer friendly in Khachigian’s eyes, he had no issue confronting such opposition even if he came off as brash. “I’m mean-spirited,” Khachigian admitted to the Bee in 1996. Four years prior, Khachigian organized a protest in Visalia and criticized then-Democratic Senate candidate Dianne Feinstein in person for what he perceived as her “lack of respect” for agriculture.

How It Began, Who Benefited

While Khachigian didn’t mind upsetting others, he usually only did so while fighting for farming. It was his passion, which was heavily influenced by being born on his family’s 60-acre grape and walnut farm in Visalia. Specifically, Khachigian was a grape grower and farmed in the 330,000-acre Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District. He also excelled as a businessman, which led to a lucrative career that allowed Khachigian to financially support politicians as well as generously donate to various charities and organizations through the years.

Then Cal-Western Nurseries CEO Luther Khachigian, left, with the group’s president Jesus Gutierrez (photo Darrell Wong, Fresno Bee file)

In 1999, Khachigian donated a 1979 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow II for auctioning to benefit the Armenian Community School of Fresno. Khachigian also helped start a grape nursery in Armenia with the Armenia Technology Group. In addition, he contributed to ongoing support of the Armenian Eyecare Project and the underwriting of the John Ohannes Khachigian Regional Eye Center in Gyumri, Armenia, that provides quality eye care access in that remote region.

Political Outspokenness

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Perhaps Khachigian’s most influential time with politics occurred during the 1980s while backing and co-chairing the San Joaquin Valley for California Governor George Deukmejian’s winning campaigns in 1982 and 1986.

A decade later, Khachigian continued to publicly support farmer-friendly politicians. He even tried to persuade then-Gov. Pete Wilson not to run for president and instead continue to focus on California. “Governor Wilson has been a farmer-friendly governor,” Khachigian said then. “We don’t want Gray Davis appointing the state’s secretary of agriculture.”

Though he endorsed primarily conservative views, Khachigian didn’t hold back against those he disagreed with. Khachigian once spoke against a then 23-year-old Devin Nunes as the young politician pursued a seat on the College of Sequoias Board of Trustees. Khachigian, who supported Nunes’ opponent, harshly criticized Nunes as being too young and inexperienced for the post. But when Nunes resoundingly won the election for the board of trustee seat, Khachigian pivoted to embrace Nunes, who managed his family’s dairy business in Pixley at the time and would go on to become a US representative.

“We’ll welcome him on board,” Khachigian said of Nunes in 1996. “He’s one of us. He’s a Republican, he’s a conservative, he’s an agriculturalist.”

Khachigian also made sure to speak up whenever he thought government was overreaching, and continued to do even as he approached his 80s. “They deserve to be sued,” Khachigian said in 2012 of the US Department of Agriculture and the California Table Grape Commission over grapevine patents. “They don’t belong in the nursery business … They’re interfering in a business they don’t know anything about.”

Impacting Others

Among those Khachigian helped influenced in politics and help implement farm-friendly policies was his youngest brother Ken. A San Clemente lawyer, Ken Khachigian would go on to be named a top adviser to Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996. Ken also was a senior adviser, media consultant, strategist and writer for the successful Reagan-Bush and Bush-Quayle campaigns.

“He’s not mean-spirited,” Luther Khachigian of his youngest brother then. “I’m mean-spirited …

“I have a close relationship with my baby brother. We’re sons of an Armenian immigrant who didn’t even know where Harvard was.”

Luther Khachigian was predeceased by his wife of 52 years, Glenda L. Khachigian. Together the couple raised five children — Grant, Denise, Teresa, Elizabeth and Luther II. Khachigian is survived by his brother Ken and sister-in-law Meredith, his son Luther Khachigian II and daughter-in-law Tracy, and his fiancée Claudette Mekalian.

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