For many who’d gathered under a warm midday sun to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Gorrill Ranch, the July 20 event was also a milestone in the resilience of agriculture in the Sacramento Valley.
About 275 guests enjoyed tours of the Durham, Calif., farm, along with lunch and presentations from local dignitaries to laud the operation’s contributions in the century since founder Ralph Gorrill first planted rice on the roughly 2,400-acre property.
Over the years, the farm has worked to preserve Gorrill’s legacy as a conservationist, including by leading a project in 1999 to replace diversion dams along nearby Butte Creek to restore winter- and spring-run Chinook salmon populations.
“Our family is a standing example” of the importance of environmental stewardship to farming, says Corrie Davis, a fourth-generation family member who is the farm’s managing partner and chairwoman. Without conservation, “we would not have been able to stand for 100 years,” she says.
The farm’s efforts typify the work of many rice growers in the valley, whose cultivation practices provide 550,000 acres of wetland to some 230 species, according to Davis. California rice is the source of almost all sushi rice in the United States, and 97 percent of the state’s rice crop is in the Sacramento Valley, Davis notes.
“For today, I can certainly appreciate the legacy you have,” U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., told the Gorrill family during his presentation. LaMalfa is himself a rice grower, having taken over a farm in nearby Richvale that’s been in his family for 87 years.
“I’ve always felt a quiet kinship with you,” he told the family. “This comes from the heart. This is a neighbor thing, not just official business.”
THE FAMILY’S STORY
Born in 1884 in Oakland, Ralph Gorrill was an engineer who was in the area in 1917 helping to lay out and build a portion of what is now Highway 99E between Durham and Nelson, according to the ranch’s website.
Gorrill was impressed by the richness of the soil and the land’s access to Butte Creek and to the highway, the website explains.
He surveyed the land, leveling the ground a section at a time, and designed a gravity-fed water delivery system that was economical and environmentally efficient. It is the basis for all the irrigation today on the main rice ranch, the website adds.
He and his wife, Elizabeth, had three daughters – Sally, Anne and Jane. The three took over the farm when their father died in 1964, continued to grow the operation and diversified with the development of tree crops including prunes, almonds, walnuts and pecans.
Since then, Ralph Gorrill’s 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren – including Davis – have assumed leadership roles at the farm. Over the years, in addition to offering employee benefit packages that well exceed industry standards, the farm has supported about a dozen community causes, including Ag in the Classroom, the Butte County Fair and Chico High School’s farm program, according to the website.
All told, Gorrill Ranch has given $300,000 to community causes, Davis says. At the gathering, the business presented a check for $10,000 to a representative of the California Rice Research Board’s Rice Experiment Station near Oroville.
The family’s legacy impressed Juleah Cordi, a field representative for state Assemblyman James Gallagher who herself comes from a six-generation farming family.
“These ties to ag are very, very important to our office … and to this region,” Cordi says. “It’s an inspiration to come here today and see the legacy and commitment of this family.”
Butte County supervisor and cattleman Steve Lambert pointed to the dozens of family members and employees wearing blue shirts to mark the occasion.
“Every one of these blue shirts has a story about a piece of the ground,” he says.
Before the July 20 presentations, guests took hayrides to view the farm’s Butte Creek fish screen and ladder, a project longtime ranch manager Don Heffren completed in 1999. The retrofitted dam protects fish from entering irrigation systems and provides fish ladders to allow passage in both the summer and winter months, the website explains.
The dam was one of four along the creek that were retrofitted by area growers, who worked together to restore 25 miles of unimpeded flows, Davis says. While fewer than 20 percent of salmon populations returned as adults in the 1990s, the creek now has more than 10,000 returning adults every spring, she says.
“Being stewards of the land requires partnerships,” she says.
The tours come as the Northern California Water Agency has recently been encouraging growers to embrace innovative solutions that create common ground with regulators and environmentalists while preserving their water rights.
At a meeting in March, NCWA chairman Bryce Lundberg told growers that voluntary conservation agreements are part of a broader strategy for the organization, which continues to support the Sacramento Valley Salmon Recovery Program.
The program is being implemented by a coalition of Sacramento River settlement contractors, state and federal agencies and environmental groups. It includes about 50 projects designed to improve the health of salmon populations, of which 15 have been completed, Lundberg said then.
At the Gorrill Ranch gathering, he congratulated the family for achieving its milestone.
“It’s a special day for my family,” added Lundberg, vice president of Lundberg Family Farms in Richvale. “We recognize this as an incredible achievement, one of many for the Gorrill family … We thank you for your commitment to agriculture.”