Modesto, CA-based Ratto Bros. Inc. is very representative of the agricultural industry at large. It has a long family history in agriculture and deep roots so commonplace in the fresh produce industry. But it also has developed its own unique niche that has set it apart from the norm and allowed it to thrive as a medium-sized California grower-shipper.
Leading that firm and also helming Western Growers as the 2019 chairman of the board is Ron Ratto, the third generation of his family to run the business, and fifth generation of the family to farm in California.
“My grandfather started selling vegetables when he was 16 years old in 1905 on Bay Farm Island,” said Ratto, who relayed that Antone L. Ratto would deliver vegetables to his customers via a horse-drawn cart.
Bay Farm Island was once an island in the San Francisco Bay dotted with farms. A landfill project connected it to Oakland and made it a peninsula. It now sits adjacent to the Oakland International Airport and is home to a 36-hole golf course, office and retail complexes, and several housing developments.
But the general area was the farming home of the Ratto family for the length of the 20th Century. In fact, it was still farming on land adjacent to the airport until 2005. That was the same year Ratto Bros. completed its state of the art packing and cooling facility in Modesto and switched the company headquarters to that location.
Antone L. Ratto actually first farmed in the Modesto area for a short time in the 1930s but Oakland was the sole focus of its operations until the 1960s. The original farm, as well as another near the airport, provided for his family of 10 children through the two World Wars and the Great Depression. In 1948 and not yet 60 years old, Antone had a heart attack and needed help with the business. His five sons started to come back to the farm and no doubt their involvement helped him live to the age of 98.
It was in the 1950s that those five sons formed the Ratto Bros. operation that exists today. Knowing that urbanized Oakland wouldn’t always be friendly to the farming community, the company bought 160 acres in Modesto in the early ‘60s and began the long transition to becoming a San Joaquin Valley organization. Over the years, the company has expanded and now has grown to more than 1,000 acres, all in the close proximity to three rivers—the Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Tuolumne. The micro-climate caused by the confluence of these three rivers allows Ratto Bros. to be a year-round grower and shipper of vegetables. The company grows dozens of vegetable items concentrating on greens and other specialty vegetables. “We grow 30-35 different leafy greens,” Ron said. “We are seasonal, but we have some crops growing all year long.”
The five members of the second generation that owned and ran the company for many years has evolved into four members of the third generation who are now part of ownership and form the management team. Ron is the president with his three cousins—Ray, David and Frank—handling production, sales and marketing. Ron said one of the family’s keys to success is that each partner takes responsibility for their own area of expertise. While discussions ensue for major decisions, there is a certain amount of autonomy within each department. “And everyone does a great job in their area. We produce great quality crops in the field and our sales and marketing departments do an excellent job.”
He added that the company has a diverse customer list, selling directly to many foodservice and retail clients. He opined that fulfilling your commitments is another major key to the firm’s success.
Ron’s path to the family operation was a straight line. After graduating from University of California at Berkeley with an agricultural degree in the 1970s, the second generation gave him the opportunity to join the family business, and he did so, making a career of it. He acknowledges that it is time for the four current shareholders to develop the next generation to take over the family business. “Retirement is lurking,” he quipped, adding that two members of the fourth generation do work for the company currently.
Ron is bullish about the future for that next generation though he also acknowledges that there are major hurdles to jump. “There are plenty of challenges to deal with, including labor, water and regulations. We deal with those challenges as we can, planning ahead the best we can.”
He said other grower-shippers have found success in diversifying by moving to other areas, states and countries to source produce but Ratto Bros. continues to manage with all its production in one district. It is this uniqueness that gives the company an edge. Virtually every other California vegetable operation is located in the coastal regions with the staple crops being their calling card. Other San Joaquin Valley farms tend to specialize in vines, nuts and tree fruit. Ron calls Ratto Bros. “a medium to small company” noting that its size “is viable for us” but admits to being an outlier as other vegetables grower-shippers are much larger, more geographically diverse and located elsewhere. No product dominates sales for Ratto Bros. but in aggregate, the sales add up. “There is only so much turnip greens a customer is going to buy,” he quipped.
It might have been being a small guy in a big pond that pushed Ron into being an active member in the agricultural community. Ratto Bros. joined Western Growers Association about 20 years ago and Ron was one of the early board members of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. He noted that it was his participation on the LGMA board that acquainted him with growers from other districts and got him more involved in industry issues. When the WG board seat for the Central San Joaquin Valley opened up about a decade ago, he ran for it and won.
He’s not sure he would call himself an “activist farmer” but Ratto said he is willing to get out and talk to people about the issues and explain agriculture’s viewpoint. He said that is important as there are host of issues, including food safety and labor concerns, in which agriculture needs to have a voice.
He is confident that both the staff and board leadership of Western Growers is moving in the right direction and he sees his position as chairman as continuing the good work that is already being done. He said the organization is an industry leader and has a history of innovative thinking. He pointed to the development of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology as a testament to that. “It is still in its infancy, but there are some really exciting and useful developments coming out of that program.”
But in his year as WG Chairman of the Board, change is going to be a prevalent theme. The association’s top two staff leaders—President Tom Nassif and Senior Executive Vice President Matt McInerney—have announced their retirement dates. Nassif will retire at the end of 2019 while McInerney is leaving in late March. Ratto said finding a new CEO will undoubtedly be an important task that the board undertakes. In late November, he said the details of the search were still under discussion but a plan would be forthcoming. “I will tell you that I have not been involved in a search of this magnitude before but I know many members of the board have. I will be relying on their expertise as we move forward and think this through. Finding a new president is going to be a very important task.”
Personally, Ratto still lives in the general area in which he grew up. He lives in the East Bay, not too far from Oakland, and about an hour’s drive from the Modesto office…when traffic cooperates. He has been married to his wife, Catharine, for 38 years, and has known her for quite a bit longer as they were family friends growing up. The couple has three sons in their 30s—Anthony, Andrew and Robert—and their first grandchild on the way. Anthony works for Ratto Bros. mentoring under Ray Ratto on the production end of the company. Andrew is also in the business, working in sales with a Salinas area shipper.