He could have been a dairy farmer, or a mortician. In the end, he decided to grow citrus.
Ken Martin, who ran Rio Queen Citrus Inc. for decades, grew up on his parents’ small dairy farm in southwest Missouri. His brother still owns the farm.
Martin went to Southwest Baptist College, then later to Dallas Mortuary College. He became a funeral director and mortician in Fulton, Mo., where he met Sue Ware, the woman who would become his wife.
Sue’s father, Jim Ware, owned acres of citrus around Mission, Texas. He sent his daughter and Ken to the Rio Grande Valley on a six-month trial basis, to see if they liked it.
On April 1, 1970, as thermometers topped out at 100 degrees, the couple rolled into McAllen, Texas.
Martin managed the groves, drove the tractors, irrigated the soil, and did everything else. He also took night classes at the Texas A&I Citrus Center in Weslaco.
“He was a jack-of-all-trades in the early years of the company,” said Ken’s son, Mike, who is now the company president.
That first season yielded 17 loads of citrus. The company, then known as WareHouse Farms, was on its way.
The company grew bit by bit. It bought more acreage for citrus. Later, it diversified, offering grove care services. Then, in 1998, it acquired Elmore & Stahl, adding onions and melons to the mix. In 2000, it bought a citrus packing facility when the company acquired Interstate Fruit & Vegetable.
The produce industry, like any industry, faces constant change, Mike Martin said. Things aren’t the way they used to be when his father was new to the business. But some things never change.
“It still comes down to relationships. It comes down to doing what you say you’re going to do,” Mike Martin said. “It’s about your word, your integrity. That’s a big part of success.”
Kenneth Fox, whose Fox Packaging Supply has worked with Rio Queen Citrus for decades, said Martin could always “get the banks to go with him” because they could trust him. Martin has a sixth sense for business opportunities, Fox said, and he was a good listener, a sponge that absorbed information.
“He’s always been that way,” Fox said. “He absolutely never forgets. He’s a very smart businessman.”
Those talents led Martin to participate in multiple committees. He served on boards for the citrus center in Weslaco, Texas Citrus Mutual, TexaSweet, and the Texas Valley Citrus Committee. He was chairman of the Texas Produce Association in 1982 and 1983.
While Rio Queen Citrus has grown into a corporate structure with divisions and multiple commodities and growing areas, it still has the Martin family heart.
“They’re family-owned, and they came up the hard way,” Fox said.
That leads to the company making decisions quickly. Although he often works with the huge produce retailers with chain stores, Fox likes dealing with the Martins.
“He’s the kind of customer you want,” he said. “They live their business, so they know what’s going on. They’re pretty much always right on.”
Rio Queen Citrus executives don’t need to call a board meeting to make important decisions, Mike Martin said. When he started taking over the reins from his father, it was a slow transition.
“These days, he steps aside when things are rolling along,” Mike said at Ken’s induction into the Texas Produce Hall of Fame. “But I think he is really preparing for the next new season.”