QUINTESSENTIAL AGRICULTURAL FIRM: There may not be a better example of what modern agriculture is all about than Gilroy’s own Christopher Ranch. Ask most farmers for a description of themselves and their profession and the same concepts turn up over and over again: Traditional. Unassuming. Modest. Philanthropic. Community. Understated. These are the same words that come to mind when discussing the world’s largest family-owned garlic operation.
TRADITION: The Christopher family has been farming in California since the 1880s when Ole Christopher emigrated from Denmark to the Santa Clara Valley. He made his living in farming and passed the torch to his own children. The second generation of Christophers continued the farming tradition and started Christopher Brothers as primarily growers and shippers of prunes. That operation began in the 1920s and continued well into the late 1970s. In the late 1970s, IBM purchased the land that was home to the prunes to build a huge California facility in what is now commonly referred to as Silicon Valley.
LAUNCHING A BUSINESS: In 1956, as the San Jose area was beginning to build up, the third generation of Christophers — Don and his brother, Art, who was a silent partner in the operation — established the Christopher Ranch on 130 acres in Gilroy. Because Gilroy was already billing itself as the ‘Garlic Capital’, they decided to grow 10 acres of garlic along with lima beans and sugar beets. The rest, as some would say, is history. In 1960, Christopher Ranch partnered with a couple of other growers to pack and sell fresh garlic from a San Jose packing shed. Two years later, Christopher Ranch built its first Gilroy packing shed, which is still standing as part of the company’s expansive complex today. From that time on, Christopher Ranch continued to increase its garlic acreage and eventually became single-minded with the garlic crop being the commodity the firm stamped its name on. By the early ‘70s, garlic was king at Christopher Ranch and the company was starting to become the leader in the industry.
GILROY & GARLIC: In 1978, Don started the Fresh Garlic Association, along with other members of the industry, to promote the sale and use of fresh garlic. The following year, he joined Dr. Rudy Melone, then president of Gavilan College, to form the first Gilroy Garlic Festival at the urging of well-known Los Angeles Times food writer Betsy Balsey. Don served as president of the festival from 1979 to 1981 and continues to serve on the Advisory Committee. Today the world-renown festival draws more than 100,000 people to the three-day event.
GARLIC INDUSTRY LEADER: Just as the garlic festival grew so did Christopher Ranch, which has been the official garlic of the festival for the past 35 years. Today, Christopher Ranch plants and harvests more than 4,000 acres of garlic and other fresh produce. With 60 million pounds of California garlic produced annually, the company is the largest producer and packer of fresh garlic in the United States. The firm employs more than 400 people year round and has a seasonal harvesting crew of 1,000. Christopher Ranch uses state-of-the art technology in the growing, harvesting, manufacturing, packing and shipping of all their fresh and packaged garlic products, which include many different packs.
Christopher Ranch also produces bell peppers, shallots, elephant garlic, ginger root, specialty onions and organic products.
PHILANTHROPY & EDUCATION: Don Christopher and Christopher Ranch has long been supportive of the local community and many organizations. The generosity might best be illustrated by the family’s efforts in the education sector. Don's parents, Art and Clara Christopher, were active on the Oak Grove School Board and Parent/Teachers Association. Both the Christophers and the Hansens, Don’s mother’s family, have had schools named after them. In 1994, the company established a day care center on-site for employees’ pre-school children, operated in conjunction with Head Start. This facility was the first of its kind in the produce industry. The Santa Clara County Office of Education employs the teachers but Christopher Ranch pays all other expenses. County officials call it a great partnership and a win-win for the district and the children.
CHRISTOPHER HIGH SCHOOL: The Gilroy School District has also benefitted greatly from the generosity of the Christophers. Understanding the need for another high school in Gilroy, Don Christopher donated 10 acres of land to the Gilroy Unified School District (GUSD), for the purpose of selling the land to generate funds for the master plan. In addition, he and his wife, Karen Christopher, followed up with a $75,000 donation in October 2008, before the school even opened. The donation was earmarked as seed money necessary to launch many of the student activities and programs at the new four-year high school as it was opening several years ago. The school board showed its appreciation by naming the school after the city’s most famous family. The school includes a series of decorative garlic bulbs sculpted right into the stone-like entry lintels.
Regarding the opening of the Gilroy high school named after him, Don Christopher said: “This new school will provide fertile soil for the seeds of dreams and ideas.” He added, “I can't tell you how proud I am of this school and impressed with their high expectations for every student.”
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