Fred Starrh, a longtime Shafter cotton farmer and industry leader whose landmark legal victory over a Bakersfield oil producer earned him local renown, died Tuesday at the age of 89 after suffering a stroke.

Born in Tucson, Ariz., Starrh grew his family's holdings from 35 acres to several thousand after expanding from planting cotton and alfalfa to growing almonds and pistachios. He held numerous positions on local, industry and national boards.

Outside ag circles, he was probably best known for a lawsuit he filed against Aera Energy LLC, a local oil company he was able to show had knowingly allowed its wastewater to contaminate his groundwater. The 13-year case, which was tried three times and appealed twice, included a multimillion-dollar award against Aera.

"He was a giant of a man," his longtime lawyer, Bakersfield's Ralph Wegis, said Wednesday. "Physically he was a big man, but he was a big man in every other sense of the word also. He was a big leader."

Starrh was a "big-picture kind of thinker" who put service to community and industry above individual gain, his son-in-law Jay Kroeker said.

He was also a dedicated family man who sometimes became emotional talking about his family.

"Family was the most important thing to him," Kroeker said.

Active in national cotton industry groups, Starrh served on the Kern High School District and the Kern County Farm Bureau, where he served as the local industry group's 35th president from 1973 to 1975. Among his accomplishments at the bureau were authorization of overweight loads for perishable produce on county roads and establishment of group's Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee, President Tito Martinez said in a written statement.

"The Kern County Farm Bureau sends (its) condolences to the Starrh family, and we are thankful for his years of services, hard work and dedication benefiting the agricultural industry in Kern County," Martinez wrote.

The Kern County Water Agency, which Starrh served as a director for 28 years, also offered its condolences. It noted his leadership and contributions "in a wide scope of water management activities to preserve and enhance California's water supplies and provide a more secure water supply for Kern County."

Starrh's first wife, Nancy, died in 2009. He is survived by his second wife, Linda Colvard; his son Fred Starrh Jr. and his wife, Cris; son Larry Starrh and his wife, Shana; daughter Carol Kroeker and her husband, Jay; and daughter Anne Ashley and her husband, Dale. He is also survived by his grandson Adam Starrh and his wife, Laura; granddaughter Dana Starrh; grandson Keith Starrh and his wife, Marci; granddaughter Michelle Starrh; grandson Brent Starrh; grandson Brad Kroeker; and granddaughter DeeAnn Edick and her husband, Brian; as well as two great-grandchildren, Colt and Walker Starrh. Additionally, he is survived by stepdaughter Dora Gatlin and her husband, Don; and stepdaughter Cindy Bynum; as well as step-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.

A memorial service has been scheduled for April 28 at Shafter Mennonite Brethren Church. Jay Kroeker said Fred Starrh was not a member of that church but that the family wants to host a remembrance there because they're afraid his church, Shafter Congregational Church, is too small to hold everyone who wants to attend.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThird Graf. Sign up at Bakersfield.com for free newsletters about local business.

(2) comments

Mark Borba

AS SAID BY NASA ASTRONAUT JAMES LOVELL:

There are only three types of people in this world:

1. Those who WATCH things happen--

2. Those who MAKE things happen--

3. And, those who wonder, "WHAT THE HECK JUST HAPPENED?"

Well, Fred Starrh was surely in the 2nd category. His leadership in the cotton industry is legendary. Fred had a way of uniting opposing positions into a consensus win-win outcome, often to the dismay of even the most active participants on both sides. The California Cotton Industry, the National Cotton Council, the SUPIMA Association, Cotton Council International...and so many more ag and community organizations benefit from Fred's many years of unselfish leadership. Fred, you will be missed...by us all.

lhodge

My wife Barbara and Me are so sorry to hear of the passing of Fred Starrh today. Fred was a wonderful friend who taught me a great deal about Kern County agriculture and how to be an effective agricultural spokesman. I joined the Kern County Farm Bureau in May of 1979 and Fred was one of the first men who helped me with my new responsibilities and the Secretary Manager. We spent many hours together travelling between Kern and Kings Counties in those day and I learned how to think and act like a farmer. I will always remember his ability to see things clearly and his deep love for God, his family, community and industry. I valued, and still do, the friendship that helped me endure and remain in that position for 25 years until my retirement in 2004. My thoughts and prayers are with Fred's family today. Fred will always remain in my memory as a beloved man who, at a time when I desperately needed someone, took me under his wing and helped me so much. Until we meet again, my friend.

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