Produce with Pride
1905 business stays fresh with high-tech, age-old farm wisdom
By JOHN HOLLAND
BEE STAFF WRITER
Antone Ratto saw a demand for fresh produce in the Oakland area in 1905.
So he put his name on a horse-drawn wagon, loaded it with vegetables he grew near San Francisco Bay, and headed to market.
A century later, a third generation of Rattos runs the business near Modesto, using high-tech systems for growing and cooling produce.
But some things remain from the old days — the horse-and-wagonlogo on the cartons, and a commitmentto providing wholesome food.
"It's a really wonderful industry that we're in from the standpoint that it's still a handshake business," said Frank Ratto, vice president for marketing and grandson of the founder, during a tour last week.
By that, he meant that a supermarket chain quickly can place an order for dozens of items, without the need for a contract.
The company, which moved to the Modesto area in 1962, was inducted into the Stanislaus County Agricultural Hall of Fame last week.
Ratto Bros. packs more than 70types of produce, mostly vegetables and herbs. Most go to stores in Northern California, but some are shipped to other states and countries.
The products include lettuce, Southern greens, beets, cabbage, leeks, tomatoes, watermelon, cactus leaves and plenty more.
Most of the produce is grown on the company's land, about 1,000 acres on eight sites within five miles of its Beckwith Road packing plant.
"They're a high-quality company, and their farming operations are among the best around," said Al Presto, a produce buyer for the Save Mart grocery chain. "The freshness and quality are very important for me."
The business was started 101years ago on Bay Farm Island, near Alameda, and later moved to land near Oakland International Airport. Five of Antone Ratto's sons eventually got involved.
"By the early '60s, they knew their future wasn't growing vegetables in Oakland by the airport," Frank Ratto said. "They didn't have the land to expand there."
The move to the Modesto area came in the face of a farm adviser's warning that the county's West Side was better suited to vegetable growing.
The Rattos have made it work with attention to detail. A computer system tracks what's in each row. Precision planters sow the seeds. Satellite signals guide the tractors across the fields. High-tech systems dispense irrigation water and fertilizer.
The tight controls have helped the company earn a "superior" grade from a group that evaluates food safety.
But here again, some age-old ways hold on. Raymond Ratto Jr., vice president for production, said he tries to plant when the moon is full in the belief that its gravity pulls the soil's water toward the surface.
And vegetable farming still involves a lot of hand labor at harvest.
"This is very hard work, and you've got to commend these people who come out here every day and do it," Frank Ratto said.
The company first used an old milking barn for cold storage at the Beckwith site. That system was expanded over the years, then replaced by a 70,000-square-foot building in 2004.
There, parka-clad workers wash, trim and pack the produce, some of which reaches stores less than a day after harvest. Every hour that produce is not kept cool means one less day of shelf life, Frank Ratto said.
"Standards are getting greater and greater, because every retailer is competing against the next and they want the best product," he said.
Ratto Bros.' faces competition of its own, including growers in places as far flung as Chile and Israel, Frank Ratto said.
But the Rattos see a bright future in the business, thanks in part to the health benefits of fresh produce.
And the emphasis on customer service will continue, said Leonard Ratto, a retired member of the company's second generation.
When it's shipped, it's got to be No. 1, he said of the quality Ratto Bros. demands. "It can't be the No. 2 or No. 3."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at 578-2385 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
OWNERS: Descendants of the late Antone Ratto, who started growing vegetables in 1905. Two of his sons, Raymond and Leonard Ratto, are retired. Three other sons who were involved in the business — John, Antone Jr. and Frank — are deceased. Four grandsons have key roles today — Ronald Ratto, president; Raymond Ratto Jr., vice president for production; David Ratto, vice president for sales; and Frank Ratto Jr., vice president for marketing.
LOCATION: 6312 Beckwith Road, west of Modesto, 545-7575, www.rattobros.com
WHAT IT DOES: The company grows and packs more than 70 types of produce, mostly vegetables and herbs. It mainly supplies grocers in Northern California.
EMPLOYEES: 180 to 200
Last Updated: December 6, 2006, 06:37:50 AM PST