Ratto Bros: Diversification gives relevance for a century
In 1889, Antone L. Ratto, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. He began farming at the tender age of 16 on Bay Farm Island near Oakland.
His grandson, Frank Ratto, who is in charge of sales and marketing for Ratto Bros., the firm that grew out of that operation, said, “Antone was a heck of a salesman. He would take his horse and wagon and go from Italian farm to Italian farm picking up product and then selling it. At the end of the day, he would come back with a cigar box full of money and split it up among the farmers.”
More than a century has passed since the firm had its start. The fourth generation is now involved; Modesto — rather than Oakland — is its home in California; and a state-of-the-art packing facility has replaced that horse and wagon.
But today’s iteration of Ratto Bros. very much appreciates its roots and has an affinity for that old style of business. In fact, as the fourth generation proudly pays homage to its roots, one can sense a bit of restlessness and maybe impatience with doing things the way they have always been done.
For this interview, two members of the third generation — cousins Ray and Frank Ratto — told the family story and were open in their admission that a succession plan is starting to take root but was probably a bit slow in coming. Nonetheless, the firm has survived and thrived for three-plus generations, more than 110 years and literally thousands of individual crop seasons.
The Bay Island farm supported Antone, his wife and 10 children for more than 30 years, through World War I, the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression.
In 1938, he expanded the operation by buying 68 acres of farmland in West Oakland. That farm helped sustain the family for another 20 years and actually stayed in production until 2005, just as Ratto Bros. was celebrating its 100th year in business. That farm was located on 98th Avenue, which is now one of the two main roads that leads to the Oakland International Airport.
Ray and Frank Ratto remember well that urbanization was in full swing well before that farm yielded its last crop. A major road separated the two halves of the farm, which led to a less-than-efficient planting and harvesting operation and eventually its demise as a productive farm.
In 1948, Antone suffered a heart attack, and although he would survive and live until the ripe old age of 98, he did need some help in the business. His five sons started to head back to the farm, and by the mid-1950s they were running the operation. In fact, in 1957, the Ratto Bros. partnership was officially formed with Antone’s sons John (Jack), Antone Jr. (Bud), Frank, Raymond and Leonard at the helm. Today, all five families are still involved and remain the owners of the operation.
Frank, whose father was Antone Jr., said it was a sign of those times that none of the daughters were involved in the company. “Antone believed women should be at home raising the family,” he said.
Today there are still no female family members working in the operation but they are involved on the board, and Frank said the company does have a number of women in key positions, just not family members.
The 1950s were very important years for the growth of the company as the second generation was in charge and realized that urban Oakland was not a sustainable location for an expanding fresh produce industry firm. They began to look outside the Oakland area to expand their business. In 1963, Ratto Bros. bought 160 acres in a former flood plain north of Modesto off Beckwith Road with Lenny and Anton Jr. soon moving to the site to run the valley operation.
Ray Ratto, the son of Raymond, who is in charge of growing, and has been for many years, told The Produce News that the family could not have picked a better farm. Today the farm has grown to about 1,400 acre and still sits on an old flood plain adjacent to three rivers: Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Tuolumne.
Ray said the microclimate provides perfect year-round weather for production, and the soil is fertile and deep. He said the area is typically 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the valley on any given day. That’s an important difference, as the valley often experiences days well above 100 degrees. And even during the recent California drought, which has been quite a challenge for the past four to five years, the water table below the Ratto Bros. property remained relatively high.
Today, the company grows 40 to 50 crops at any one time, turning the land three to five time per year. Ratto Bros. has all the latest technology and advancements, including a high-tech cooling and packaging facility, state-of-the-art irrigation pumping and filtration stations, an on-site solar installation, a well-staffed food-safety team, and an in-house computer program that can track the dozens of specialty-type vegetables crops the firm grows.
It is those many crops in three or four row blocks in many different stages of growth on 10 different ranches that give this company its niche and competitive advantage.
Ray said that for sheer size, the firm cannot compete against the “big boys” in the Salinas Valley, which is about 100 miles away if a crow were to head in a southwestern direction. But it can compete with its diversity and ability to offer one-stop shopping. Frank said that if a retailer brings a truck to the company’s facility in Modesto, he can fill it with pallets containing dozens of fresh vegetables. He continually calls the firm a “small, family farm,” which seems to belie its size and scope but probably captures its spirit.
Frank said that the crop rotation is driven by demand, with retailers often requesting one crop or another.
“We are known for our leafy items such as collards, mustard greens, Swiss chard, bok choy and basil,” said Ray.
Frank added that the kale items have become very popular recently, as the firm is now growing five different kinds. “Retailers are always looking for new items or new colors for items, such as red kale,” he said. “Or red baby bok choy is another new item.”
The company specializes in carton business but has dabbled in value-added lines over the years. “We were one of the first companies to do bagged chards,” Frank said.
He said it might have been a mistake to abandon that business, “but we didn’t think it would stick.”
In a refreshing way, the Ratto Bros. duo for this interview were not afraid to admit their missteps and big steps. Frank said that building the state-of-the-art facility was a very big move and required buy-in from the all the families and all the principals, even those not actively involved in the day-to-day running of the organization. He said that required a leap of faith and one that brought the company into the 21st century. It allowed the firm to up its food-safety game and ultimately provide better products at an affordable per-unit cost.
Today, Ratto Bros. has a nationwide following with customers from coast to coast. It also sells to exporters and sends its many items all over the world.
The firm also continues to look at new endeavors, as it is making a more concerted effort to be a player in the organic sector, though it currently has only about 70 acres devoted to that category.
It also is a big user of returnable plastic containers, with Frank saying that business is completely driven by retailer demand. Initially, he said Ratto Bros. was skeptical that its products would be well served by being packed in RPCs. But the firm did a test with IFCO that proved the product actually cools better and arrives better at destination.
Today’s company is led by four cousins, with Ron and David joining Ray and Frank at the helm. Ron is Jack’s son, while David and Ray came from Raymond, and Frank is one of Antone Jr.’s children.
Ron Ratto is the company president. Born in 1951, he got a degree in agriculture from the University of California-Berkeley, and always knew he was going to join the family business. However, he grew up in Oakland and still lives in that general vicinity, making the hour-plus commute into the office every day.
Ray Ratto went to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and was also an ag major. He grew up on the family farm in Alameda and also figured it would be his occupation. He walks the company’s fields every day and is the production guy.
David went to UC-Davis and got a degree in city planning. His first career was as a real estate developer. As the generation above him aged and needed some help, he joined the firm and is now the company’s vice president of sales.
Frank took the most circuitous route to the family business. He moved to Modesto when he was only three years old as the company bought its first valley ranch. He readily admits that he didn’t like the farm life and was ready to move away as soon as he could. He went to college at San Diego State University, earned a degree in business marketing, and had a successful career selling medical equipment and devices. In the early 1990s, he moved back to Modesto to help out with his mother who still lived in the family home. Eventually, he joined the team as the marketing guy and hasn’t looked back.
This third generation started to take the reins from their dads when they were in their 30s, but they aren’t quite ready to follow suit. To date, only a few members of the fourth generation have joined the family firm.
Ron’s son, Anthony, is on the production side of the business while one of Frank’s sons, Geoffrey, is involved in sales. In addition, Ray’s son-in-law, Peter Reece, also works for Ratto Bros. Frank reiterated that he and his three cousins are currently working through the issues of succession planning and trying to put the pieces in place to make sure the company survives another 100 years as a family firm.
The 34-year-old Anthony, as his age and station in life would dictate, is a bit impatient. He readily admits that the generation above him has a great deal of institutional know-how and knowledge, but he’s itching to make his mark.
Anthony graduated from college, worked in Africa and then cut his eyeteeth in the agricultural business with another firm for a half-dozen years before joining Ratto Bros. He has been in the fold for three years in the operations end of the business. He said there are many challenges to being in agriculture in California, including working in a family business. He said the four leaders have different approaches.
“It’s a challenge to work with family members,” he quipped, noting that he is worried that the company isn’t changing as fast as it should.
Geoffrey, 28, also first worked in agriculture outside the company before coming back to the firm about three years ago. He is on the sales side and always wanted to work in the family business. He seems a bit more patient but also expressed strong confidence in his own skill set and the desire to be part of the leadership team at some point in the future.
Frank said that the current four principals believe it’s important for this next generation to learn about the business from others before joining the company. He’s confident that others in that generation will eventually come back to the fold and help lead the firm as it gets deeper into its second century.