Didar Singh Bains is of the best-known Punjabi Americans in Yuba City and globally. Despite his humble origins, Bains emerged in the postwar period as the largest peach farmer in California and one of the largest in the world. He is widely known as the “Peach King” due to his success in farming. Mr. Bains has played critical roles in founding Sikh institutions and festivals in Yuba City and globally. He wields political influence in California, Washington, D.C. and in India, and he is an influential philanthropist in the South Asian diaspora.
Below is a tribute written by his daughter, Diljit Bains, summarizing her father’s life story and his contributions to his community, his faith, and the two countries he loves.
Didar Singh Bains, “A Punjabi American Pioneer: A Family Tribute”
Origins of the Bains Family in California
The Bains family comes from the Hoshiarpur district of the Punjab, a region that remained a part of India after the 1947 Partition. The first Bains pioneer (Didar Singh Bains’ great uncle), Kartar “Ram” Bains, arrived in the US via Mexico during the 1920s after he was initially denied entry to America when his ship docked in San Francisco. He first worked in the fruit orchards in the Imperial Valley before reaching the Placer County and the Yuba City area, where he eventually bought land to establish his own orchards. Having remained a life-long bachelor, he left his property to his nephew, Gurpal Singh Bains, when he passed away in 1979.
Didar Singh Bains’ Parents: Gurpal Singh Bains and Amar Kaur Bains
With his uncle Ram’s help, Gurpal Singh Bains arrived in Yuba City from the Punjab India in 1948. Gurpal left his family and a small farm in the Punjab for the US to try to better the family’s economic situation. In Yuba City, he worked in the orchards.
In 1962, Amar Kaur was one of the first Punjabi women to arrive in Yuba City and she helped the family’s peach farming business grow in countless ways, including picking peaches during the harvest season. She also contributed to the growing Punjabi community in Yuba City through her community service (seva) in the Sikh Temple, weddings, religious ceremonies, and other community events. After his retirement, Gurpal served as the President of the Yuba City Sikh Temple. Amar Kaur passed away in 1994 and Gurpal Singh Bains passed away in 2001.
Didar Singh Bains
Didar Singh Bains was born on January 10, 1939 (although his official birthdate is recorded as April 20, 1938) in a small farming village of Nangal Khurd in the district of Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India. Didar’s father, Gurpal Singh Bains, left for the US when Didar was ten years old. At the age of 14, Didar started farming in his village and supported his family until he left to work in the USA himself at the age of 18.
Arrival in Yuba City and Agricultural Success – “The Peach King”
Didar Singh Bains arrived in the United States in 1958 with eight dollars to his name and the belief that “money could grow on trees”. He was a young jat—a Sikh farmer who believed that farming is next to godliness. When he took a whiff of the prime Columbian loam lining the fields of Sutter County, he knew he’d found paradise and home.
He started as a basic laborer with only a few words of English in his vocabulary. His first job in the USA involved working for farmers Roy Noreen and Steve Nelson driving tractors, irrigating, and pruning and laboring in their orchards for seventy-five cents per hour. Didar remained loyal to his family and worked tirelessly to help re-unite his parents and subsequently his mother Amar Kaur and his younger brother arrived in the USA in 1962.
Through sheer hard work and perseverance he quickly rose to the rank of foreman, where everyone acknowledged that he did the work of four men. Having a very limited education, he used his natural instincts, intelligence, and keen business acumen to purchase his first piece of land in 1962, then another, and another, and by 1978 he became the largest peach farmer in California and the world and became widely known as the “Peach King.
Didar’s willingness to take risks combined with his uncanny insight for identifying those parcels of land that would inevitably fall directly in the path of urban growth has been long been admired by real estate pundits. At other times, often land that others had disregarded, was re-purposed by Didar into some of the region’s most productive farm land by matching the land with the right process and product (crop).
After tremendous success in the USA, particularly in California, Didar set his sights to achieve similar success in Canada. He began with his first purchase of land in 1978, just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia, and continued to purchase and develop his agricultural lands in Canada. His vast knowledge and experience in farming permitted him not only to diversify into cranberries—a crop he had not previously grown—but also to become the agricultural cooperative Ocean Spray’s second-largest grower of cranberries. The diversification would not end there as he continued to amass and develop large tracts of raspberries, blueberries, and black currants in both Washington State and British Columbia. While growing in other states and in Canada, Didar also continued grow his farming operations in thirteen counties in California, including Sutter County, necessitating the need for his own private plane to traverse the various farms. His farming operation in Yuba City eventually grew to include prunes, walnuts, almonds, and grapes.
On June 21, 1964, Bains married Santi (Poonian) Bains (born in 1944), daughter of Paritem Singh Poonian, a nurseryman and farmer who helped many Sikh farmers by loaning them money when the banks would not. Her grandfather, Diwan Singh, a prosperous Sikh farmer from Arizona, was recognized for bringing crop rotation to the United States. Her father, Paritem, was also instrumental in raising money for the first Sikh temple in Yuba City and was its first president. Santi and Didar raised three children—Ajit, Diljit, and Karmdeep. Family is deeply important to Didar’s identity in the Yuba City area. Since the 1960s, Bains has sponsored countless family members, helping create a large network of Bains in the Yuba City area. This work to bring not only his own family members, but many other families over earned him the title of “Immigration Machine” in the Sikh community. None of these people have been a burden on the government because Didar has helped them and others financially either by cosigning for them going into business for themselves or by helping them to become doctors, engineers, and other professionals. This ability to give back and empower others has been a hallmark of Didar’s life’s work. This idea, and the will and ability to help people change their lives, makes Didar the epitome of the American Dream. Starting from nothing but faith and confidence, he was able to rise in stature and prominence in every facet of his life to help and mentor others Sikh people to do the same.
Business and Development
Didar has not only demonstrated great skill in building a world-class diversified farming operation, he has also demonstrated great success in many non-farming business ventures as well. This has included numerous farmland conversions for high density uses of residential, industrial and commercial lands. He successfully struck a deal with Sam Walton to bring Sam’s Club and Walmart to Yuba City in 1992—the last deal Sam Walton signed before his death. The following year he purchased Harker Packing Company. These various deals and projects have also had an impact on the community. As the various municipalities have expanded, Bains has worked to help develop the necessary infrastructure in these areas to support the population. He has added sidewalks and street lights to cities, and he has helped develop entire towns by donating land for structures such as water tanks and other necessities. Never forgetting his heritage and always eager to help his fellow immigrants in 1990 he was instrumental in helping forming the Khalsa Credit Union. Never to be the one to rest on his laurels, in 2009 he engaged in another project by developing the Yuba City Market Place that includes Home Depot, Michael’s, and other similar stores. He was also ahead of his time in creating the American Punjab Corporation in 1970 that combined his two cultural identities as an American and a person of Punjabi heritage.
True to his name (Didar means “visionary” in Punjabi), he has played a critical role in founding and funding Sikh institutions, foundations and festivals in Yuba City and globally. He wields political influence in Sacramento, Washington, D.C., New Delhi, and Chandigarh. He is an influential and unprecedented philanthropist in the South Asian diaspora. It is incontestable that anyone inside or outside of India has given or done more for the Sikh faith and its people: he was, after all, the first to bring international recognition to the Sikhs in California and Yuba City. In 2014, thousands joined Governor Jerry Brown to honor Didar Bains for enriching the state and nation with his culture, work ethic, charity, and financial contributions.
Didar Bains’ achievements include shaping California agriculture, being a fearless pioneering leader in farming and philanthropy, and his ability to balancing self-achievements and his relentless desire to help others pave a path to their own success. Among his innate qualities that led to his great achievements are his self-discipline, unwavering commitment to see things to the end, and not to be deterred by naysayers.
Despite extensive farming and business interests and commitment to family, from the first day that he arrived in the Yuba City Didar has taken on a personal responsibility for participating in and preserving the Punjabi culture and strengthening of the Sikh community. It’s extremely rare to find people of Didar’s stature of business success who devotes countless hours of his personal time to furthering his community. Didar has not only helped by providing leadership but also by opening his wallet in nearly every situation that has required his help. He has volunteered an incredible amount of time to his hands-on service of his people and community.
From 1965-1968, he served as the President of the Stockton Gurdwara, the first Sikh temple in the United States. In 1967, he began collecting donations from all over the state of California to the border of Mexico for what would become the Sikh Gurdwara in Yuba City, which celebrated its groundbreaking in 1969. Since then he has served many terms as President on the temple. During that time, anyone who donated $1,000 or more would become a trustee of the Gurdwara. By the time of completion, twenty-six individuals had donated at that level. In 1980, Bains established the Annual Sikh Parade in Yuba City (the Nagar Kirtan), which celebrates the birth of the Sikh holy book and draws over 100,000 Sikhs to the area every year. It is one of the largest South Asian festivals outside of India.
Then in 1984, after many lives were lost between Sikhs and Hindus in India, Bains founded the World Sikh Organization, which worked to fight human rights violations in India after the attack on the Golden Temple. His goal was to make the world aware of what was happening in India. Didar has also served as the head of the North American Akali Dal (a political party). In 1985, he became the founding chairman of the World Kabbadi Federation. In addition, Bains also sits on the World Sikh Council.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Sikh Americans became the focus of hate crimes. Didar was instrumental in organizing a meeting with President Bush in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Together with fourteen Sikhs from around the United States, they discussed the acceptance of Sikhs in America in the face of religious fear-mongering. During the meeting, Didar told President Bush that he was an American first and that he was there to support his country. Following the meeting, President Bush, joined by two of the Sikhs, held a press conference about the meeting which was reported on CNN. Echoing Didar’s words, the President stated that Sikhs are Americans first and that no one should be afraid of them.
In September 2012, while hospitalized in California, Didar Bains and his friend and doctor, Dr. Balwinder S. Malhi combined to donate $100,000 to the Wisconsin police officer Lt. Brian Murphy of the Oak Creek Police Department who was shot 15 times during the August 5, 2012 rampage at a Sikh Temple outside Milwaukee. Six members of the Oak Creek Temple congregation were killed, including Gurdwara President Satwant Kaleka, who had been a friend of the Bains family. It was acts of compassion and generosity like these by Didar that have changed Americans’ perceptions of Sikhs positively.
Didar’s name is synonymous with generously giving back. He is involved in almost every aspect of the Sikh world both in Yuba City and internationally. His generosity and his work ethic know no bounds, as he has continued to push for more throughout his life. From large ventures like donating the land for the first Sikh temple complex in Yuba City to contributing to multiple Sikh temples (located in Live Oak, El Sobrante, Freemont, Caruthers, and others worldwide) and Sikh schools in places such as Vancouver and Yuba City, Didar has had a hand in just about everything. In addition, he has sponsored hundreds of weddings for families that cannot afford them, allowing newlyweds to start off on the right foot and women to marry into higher socio-economic families.
He has donated money to expand the Rideout Emergency Hospital in Marysville, California, and has also donated 13.85 acres to Sharomini Gurdwara Parbandik Committee in Yuba City to build a structure that will house a printing press for the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. He also donated money to a museum in India which is a celebration of the anniversary of the Khalsa. These are types of donations are not new, as he had consistently donated money and acreage to organizations that have needed them for decades, stretching back into the 1980s when he donated money to build a new wing at the old Freemont Hospital in Yuba City.
Notably, Bains has donated $2 million to the Khalsa school in honor of his mother, which he was able to do by refinancing his own land when he fell short on funds. He had pledged this amount previously, and he was going to stick to his word no matter what.
Bains’ contributions are not limited to California. Among his contributions to the worldwide Sikh community, he has donated the initial three acres the temple was built on and later 13 acres to the Nanak Sar Gurdwara in Richmond, British Columbia. He signed over 709 acres to the Nanak Sar Gurdwara temple in Edmonton, Canada. A few years later the temple sold a portion of that land, netting them multiple times what it was originally worth.
Most recently, in 2016 he donated to the Rideout Regional Medical Center Tower campaign, again focusing efforts on helping develop the community that has meant so much to him over his lifetime.
What drives a man that has had extreme successes in farming, multiple businesses, and has given generously to family, community, and country? Humility and spirituality. Didar’s dedication to God and prayer have been the core driving forces in everything he does. He has been bestowed the highest honors in Sikhism for his commitment to God and religion. In 1982 Bains was baptized by Jatheder of the Akal Takhat Giani Ajnoha Sahib, who had come over to the United States specifically to baptize Bains. The following year, he received the Bhai Sahib Kethab from the Akal Takhat. In 2010 he received the Panth Rattan (which is equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize) as a recognition for all of his work for the Sikh community, an honor of which he is the only living recipient.
Politics and Recognitions
Recognizing early upon his arrival in the US that his plight and that of his fellow countrymen could only be improved by becoming involvement in politics, he undertook the commitment to forge his way deep into US politics. In 1974 he was elected to the California Peach Canning Association Board of Directors. When the industry got hit with an economic downturn, he was instrumental in working with Washington DC to facilitate programs that worked with the prison system and the education board to get peaches onto their menus, which helped many of the farmers from going bankrupt.
In 1980 Bains founded the Bains Foundation. He was the first Sikh to have a charitable foundation of its kind, which made his thinking way ahead of its time. A year later in 1981 Bains became a lifetime member of the Republican Inner Circle under Ronald Reagan as well as a member of the Presidential Round Table. Bains had become one of the world’s best known and even most controversial Sikh leaders. He continued to work closely with high-level political leaders on economic and agricultural issues. His many contributions were recognized in 2014 by Governor Jerry Brown. Bains has also contributed to a cavalcade of political candidates from local county sheriffs to presidents.
We all know gifted people who have extraordinary abilities in an area that they love and have a passion for, but it is very rare to find someone like Didar Bains who has such abilities in multiple areas. It is extremely rare to find someone who can be so successful in various areas but also devote time to provide leadership and contribute in any way possible to his faith, family, community, and country.
A Family’s Biographical Tribute To Their Father, October 2016.
Interview with Didar Singh Bains by Nicole Ranganath, July 18, 2016, Yuba City, CA.
Interview with Karm Singh Bains by Nicole Ranganath, June 7, 2016, Yuba City, CA.