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.