Russell van Loben Sels is a fourth-generation farmer, vice president and CFO of Amistad Ranches, and secretary and CFO of Esperanza Enterprises. For over 40 years, he has farmed Bartlett pears, tomatoes, wine grapes, alfalfa, and grains in the California Delta. Before participating in a panel on the future of the Delta, he talked ducks (shooting them and wearing them on ties), women’s basketball (his favorite spectator sport), and the most delicious ways to eat pears in the Zócalo green room.
What’s the ugliest tie you own?
My wife would say it’s the one that has the wood duck on it. More than one wood duck—several wood ducks on it. I like it myself.
Who was your childhood hero?
My uncle. He was a very well-spoken individual. He obviously thought about things, he wrote a book about things, he was a colonel in the army in World War II. He had several brothers, and they all looked up to him. We got to know him pretty well in the mountains—we had some family cabins up there, and he was sort of the leader of the bunch.
What’s your favorite crop?
Probably wine grapes. We grow about 400 acres of them.
What’s the best decision you’ve ever made?
To marry my wife.
Where do you go to be alone?
A few places. I enjoy hunting—ducks, primarily, and usually it’s me and my dog and nature. I enjoy that.
What kind of gun do you own?
I own several shotguns and a couple rifles. I have one shotgun that I take apart and put the parts in other shotguns, make them work.
What’s the biggest misconception most Californians have about farmers?
I’m what I would call a family farmer, but others would call me perhaps a factory farmer. And that we love to use chemicals on everything, we contaminate everything, we contaminate the water. Actually, we’re very good stewards of the resources we employ in making crops.
What television shows do you watch regularly?
I watch some sports, and that’s about it.
What teams do you root for?
With professional sports it’s all about money, and it’s all about who can buy the best players. But I really enjoy college sports. I enjoy women’s basketball a lot. My daughter played basketball, and Marilyn [my wife] and I both went to Stanford, so we follow the Cardinal in football, and more in women’s basketball than the men’s.
What’s the greatest pear dessert?
Marilyn makes a really wicked pear cake. She will normally take fresh pears when they’re in season and put them through the blender, and then use that as the basis for a pear cake. It’s really very good. Another one that’s very good is just half a pear, when they’re fresh, with a dollop of ice cream and chocolate sauce on top. Eat more pears, by the way. I grow a lot of those, too.