Ask fifth-generation produce and wine grape grower Michael Griva what has kept his family’s ranch going for 150 years, and he’ll say diversification.
The Francioni and Griva Ranch, near the small Salinas Valley town of Greenfield, Calif., started as a hay and dairy operation and has since added a diversified portfolio of vegetables and, within the last 20 years, wine grapes.
Established near Watsonville by immigrant Fernando Franscioni in 1868, the operation moved in 1905 to its present homestead on the Arroyo Seco River, where grower Gildo Griva and partner Walter Franscioni began a modernization push early in the last century.
The farm will celebrate its sesquicentennial with a party Nov. 15, where about 300 invited guests will include representatives of the many companies that have done business with the farm over the years.
“One thing that became prevalent from the very beginning is that for the last 150 years, previous generations of family members always diversified,” Michael Griva says. “They always had something going on to try to optimize according to growing conditions, weather conditions, or business climate. It’s like when they were growing grain in the early 1900s, they also had cattle, and sometimes they were able to use the byproduct of the grain … as feed for the cattle.”
A UNIQUE DIVERSIFICATION
It’s that diversification that makes the farm unique among those in California that have been around for 150 years, says Rebecca Griva, Michael’s daughter, and the farm’s director of sustainability.
“Not many farms in our area have quite reached 150 years, and those that have specialized in one crop,” she says. “What’s special about us is that when we started, we grew wheat and raised dairy cows, and through the years we’ve grown diverse crops. Now, we’re mostly vineyards, but we still have beans, which we’ve grown since World War I, and a couple other crops.”
One of the earliest photos in the farm’s voluminous archive shows a late-1800s tandem hay wagon hitched with an eight-horse team, making its way along a dusty trail to the Soledad Round House. Since horses pulled fire engines at the time, the hay was loaded onto a train and sold to the San Francisco Fire Department.
In about 1912, the Walter Franscioni Dairy expanded its 70-foot dairy barn to 140 feet. The barn still stands and is used for equipment. Around that time, Rebecca Griva explains, Gildo Griva — Michael’s grandfather — immigrated from Italy to work on the ranch with his stepfather, Walter Franscioni. The Franscioni and Griva partnership was formed in 1921, and later generations formed a corporation in 1959.
Almost from the beginning, according to the Franscioni and Griva Corp. website, the farm constantly tried to improve its technology. One of the first tasks was to develop the property next to the river for irrigation so the farm could begin to grow produce.
After it started planting dry beans in 1917 for the World War I effort, the operation acquired its first “new” bean harvester in 1937. The CB Hay Harvesters separated the beans from the chaff, and the clean beans were brought up to the top of the harvester and into what was known as the “dog house,” where they were put into 100-pound sacks and sewn shut. The sealed bags were then sent to the ground using a chute, to later be loaded onto a wagon.
The farm bought its first sprinkler irrigation system in 1954. The pipes in the system were made of 4-inch aluminum and had a 12-inch steel riser with a Rainbird sprinkler. They were heavy to move and difficult to unlatch, the site explains.
A new beet wheel harvester greatly aided the farm’s production of sugar beets, which previously been harvested by hand. The harvester would do quite a few functions at once — pulling the beet up, cutting the top off, and depositing it into the back of the truck.
In 1993, Franscioni and Griva received the High Crop Production Award from Holly Sugar Co., for harvesting 60.9 tons per acre of sugar beets that year.
FILLING A NICHE
Today, the nearly 1,000-acre farm has 337 acres of grapes and a variety of other crops, including fresh and freezer spinach, lettuce and other greens, and dry beans. And it is still adding new technology, including a solar array installed this year.
A push toward sustainability is the goal for Rebecca Griva, who returned to the farm this year after earning a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of California-Davis. She’s working on obtaining third-party certification for the farm’s sustainable growing practices, perhaps by January. “There’s always progress to be made as far as being more sustainable and environmentally conscious,” she says.
For Michael Griva, who’s been working on the farm since he graduated from high school 40 years ago, the biggest change has been adding the vineyards, he says. The farm grows Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and white Riesling Sirah grapes.
The farm used to have large blocks of field crops, such as potatoes, garlic, and corn for corn nuts, as well as vegetables, he says. Plantings of those crops were about 50 acres to 75 acres. Now there’s more demand for niche crops, such as leeks, bok choy, and cilantro, delivered in small quantities, so blocks are often no larger than an acre or two.
Growing so many different niche vegetables is a lot of work, but Griva enjoys it, he says. “I consider it kind of fun. There’s a little bit of challenge in growing a new crop. My goal is, being a small family farmer, that we can stay sustainable — not only as a catchword for environmental concerns, but sustainable in that we can stay in business so other family members of mine can get up at 2:00 in the morning and start and stop pumps.”
With all the changes coming to agriculture, Griva isn’t quite ready to predict another 150 years for his farm. But there’s always tomorrow.
“I feel that the way the industry has changed, you’re probably one bad decision away from being out of business,” he says. “I don’t think that was the case 40 years ago. But I think now, with food safety and possible lawsuits, you have to make sure you have everything working in your favor as best you can. I think our deal has been diversifying what we grow, and trying to do our best job.”