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Ernest Bedrosian speaks after he was was honored as Ag Business of the Year during the 2006 Agriculturist of the Year

Ernest Bedrosian, one of the San Joaquin Valley's leading raisin growers and packers, died on Jan. 1 of natural causes. He was 80.

Mr. Bedrosian, a charismatic leader, is credited with launching the first bargaining association for raisin growers 48 years ago. The organization known as the Raisin Bargaining Association was formed to help raisin farmers negotiate a price with the industry's packers. Mr. Bedrosian was a founding director and first RBA president.

Today, the RBA has more than 1,000 members.

"Forming the organization was quite a task and he put his blood, sweat and tears into it," said Glen Goto, chief executive of the Fresno-based association. "The industry has really lost a piece of its identity."

Mr. Bedrosian also used his leadership talents to help build the family's farming assets. Along with his brothers, Krikor and Kenneth, they founded the Fowler-based National Raisin Company in 1969. Back then, the company was one of more than 30 raisin packinghouses in the Valley.

"To uncle, the company was like another child to him," said Jane Asmar, vice president of sales at National and Mr. Bedrosian's niece. "And he gave it all his energy."

Mr. Bedrosian was president of National Raisin for 42 years, guiding the company from a small-time firm to one of the largest independent raisin processors in the nation.

The company sells raisins and other dried fruit under the Champion brand.

Many in the raisin industry say Mr. Bedrosian was instrumental for helping to expand the market for raisins domestically and abroad.

"Ernie was one of those rare people who could lead an industry and contribute to improving the industry during good times and difficult times," said Barry F. Kriebel, president of Sun-Maid Growers of California. "I always valued him as a friend and a person to emulate."

LindaKay Abdulian, National Raisin Company president and also Mr. Bedrosian's niece, said she learned much under her uncle's guidance.

"He understood all aspects of this industry, how to build markets and how to grow the raisin industry," Abdulian said. "That was his passion."