Thomas Produce founder dies at home in Boca Raton

John J. Thomas, 97, founder of Boca Raton-based Thomas Produce Co., one of Florida’s largest vegetable growers, died Jan. 1 at his home in Boca Raton.

Born in 1920, Mr. Thomas came to Palm Beach County from North Collins, N.Y. outside Buffalo in 1959 and began farming on 800 acres on land west of Boca Raton that is now occupied by Olympic Heights High School. He grew green beans in New York, and that was his first crop in Florida.

“He put four John Deere tractors on a flatbed railroad car and came in Palm Beach County in 1959,” Mr. Thomas’ son Norman Thomas said. “He was energetic and a people-oriented person.”

Back then the green beans were handpicked, and later when labor became more difficult to find, machine harvested.

Mr. Thomas was one of the first “Yankee” farmers from New York who arrived in Palm Beach County and established operations during the same era, Thomas’s daughter Kathy LaSalle said.

The Mecca farming family, also based in Palm Beach County, were from the same town in New York, and the Pero family was also from New York, and are still in business also.

Pete Pero, founder of Pero Family Farms, Delray Beach, who knew Mr. Thomas for 61 years, said, “John had a love for farming, and he was one of the largest vegetable growers in the Southeast. He always helped his fellow farmers out when someone was in need. John will be missed as a businessman and friend.”

LaSalle said her father recognized the vegetable industry changing, with demand for fresh vegetables increasing as demand for canned products declined. He believed the fresh winter vegetable market in Florida would be a good one.

Thomas Produce’s packinghouse at the corner of Clint Moore Road and U.S. 441 is surrounded by development.

The company grows vegetables in Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Hendry counties on approximately 10,000 acres. It produces, packs and ships more than 5 million boxes per year of bell peppers, cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini, specialty peppers such as jalapenos and green beans. Peak acreage was n the 1990s at 17,000 acres. It no longer grows tomatoes due to cheap imports from Mexico.

The 1,000-employee firm is operated by Mr. Thomas’ seven children.

In a 2001 interview Mr. Thomas said recalled the area’s two worst freezes: January 1977, when it snowed on U.S. 441 and Christmas 1989, when three-fourths of the crop was wiped out.

Mr. Thomas worked until he was 92 or 93, LaSalle said. He consumed what’s now called the Mediterranean diet before it was even labeled as such.

His father Angelo started farming in New York in 1900 or so after he dynamited stumps to clear the land to grow beans and other vegetables. By the 1940s, the family was growing crops for canning: beans tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, raspberries and strawberries.

Mr. Thomas was out in the fields with his parents even before he was old enough to help. His mother placed him in a bushel basket.

Mr. Thomas’ wife Norma pre-deceased him in 2017.

A visitation will be held from 4 p.m. 8 p.m. on Tuesday, January 9, at Glick Family Funeral Home, 3600 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. A second visitation will be held at a later date at Wentland Funeral Home, 10634 Main St., North Collins, N.Y. A funeral Mass will also be held at a later date at the Holy Spirit Church in North Collins.

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