John Diener with a white-board map of his farmland, which covers a wall in his office building. Five Points, Fresno County.
The first time I met John Diener, we talked for hours about everything from wheat futures to philosophy. At one point, as he told me a personal story, he began to tear up—had to stop talking. Regaining composure, he told me that it’s easy to get close to his heart.
This is the same John Diener who is an astute player in California agribusiness. He farms five-thousand acres on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley and has a degree in ag econ from UC Davis—follows the world market to determine what crops to plant. He is famous for pioneering multi-million-dollar technological efforts to reclaim salt-laden farm drainage water, using everything from ion exchange separation to brine shrimp. By selling the extracted salts as industrial ingredients, he intends to make the systems financially self-sustaining.
What fascinates me is that John’s market acumen is paired with a sensitivity that is in sharp contrast to common assumptions about what the men behind big ag are like. Rather than move to Fresno like so many successful farmers do, he lives in the mostly lower-income rural area where his farm is, Five Points. Partly it’s because he feels he has a leadership role to play: Too often people with education and opportunity pull out of places like Five Points, making a living off the community but abandoning it socially. Rather than send his kids to parochial school he kept them in the local public system, and even as they have gone on to college he remains active in the system. Indeed, outside his office building is a flock of sheep he raises for the 4-H program.
As he sees it, the profitability of his business is a means to then be able to do good for his employees and the community, which in turn benefits society as a whole. He attributes it to his Catholic upbringing and the six years he spent in seminary school, where much of his learning focused on how to build community. “There is a fabric to life,” he told me, “and we all create that fabric together.”