Peaches yielded the sweet smell of success

By Vicky Boyd

 

Standing on the family’s original “Home Ranch” near Ballico, California, Gail Ferrari Martin recently described the arduous journey her father took as a teenager on his own, to becoming one of the world’s top canning peach producers.

To honor that hard work, Martin said she didn’t think twice about placing the Home Ranch in an Agricultural Conservation Easement (ACE) with California Farmland Trust in 2019 to protect it from development and permanently keep it in agriculture.

“Everyone in our family is on board with this,” she said. “For my family, this is important to save. We really all admire what our parents did, how hard they worked and how much they sacrificed.”

Opportunity knocks

“Americo” Albert Ferrari was only 16 years old in 1927 when his father decided to pack up the family and move from Ballico back to Santa Rosa where they formerly lived. Seeing the wide-open agricultural expanses of California’s Central Valley, Ferrari decided to stay.

“He saw some opportunity here,” said Martin, his daughter. “Land was cheap and the ground was excellent. He just stood in the road watching. He really didn’t even have a place to stay.”

Ferrari promptly knocked on a neighbor’s door seeking work. The neighbor asked if he knew how to prune peaches. Although Ferrari admitted he didn’t, he said he could learn.

For the next 11 years, Ferrari was a day laborer working the Central Valley’s fields and orchards. Along the way, he met and married Josephine Matson, and they lived in a tiny house that rented for $5 a month. Some months, they couldn’t pay the rent, but the landlord allowed him to work it off.

“Those years were meager, and I mean really meager years,” Martin said.

Life changed one Friday when Ferrari was in line at the Bank of America waiting to cash his weekly paycheck. He was filthy from spending a day toiling in the fields, and the bank manager came over wanting to speak to him.

“He just looked like a guy who worked hard and caught the eye of the bank manager,” Martin said.

Thinking the worst, Ferrari was hesitant at first. But the manager explained the bank had foreclosed on about 60 acres of ground and needed someone to farm it. The orchard was just down the road from where Albert and Josephine were living.

“When my dad and mom drove out there to get a look, there were different crops and 2 to 3 acres of peaches. He just flipped. ‘I know how to farm these,’” Martin said, recalling.

After about two years of farming the ground, the bank manager offered Ferrari the 60 acres at an attractive price and at a good rate. The farm would be forever known within the Ferrari family as the “Home Ranch.”

World War II hit soon after, and the demand for canned peaches soared. Over the years, Ferrari would have success farming peaches and was able to buy additional pieces of nearby ground. At one time, officials with Del Monte, with whom he had a contract, told him he was the largest independent canning peach grower in the world.

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the peach orchards were slowly converted to almonds.

‘Harvest here was so much fun’

Albert and Josephine also built a small home on the Home Ranch and raised three children: Gail Ferrari Martin, John Ferrari and the late JoAnn Ferrari DiGiovanni. Martin and her siblings grew up working on the farm.

“Harvest here was so much fun,” she said. “There were tractors up and down these rows. It was really robust. Now it’s very quiet – growing almonds is a lot different. We’re down to about 40 acres of peaches on all of our farms. It’s awfully sad for me today because I just loved working in the peaches with my dad.”

Martin and her husband, John Martin, moved back to the Home Ranch in 1990 when her twin sons were 5 years old. There, the boys grew up playing in the fields and having the run of the farm.

Today, the Home Ranch is planted to slightly fewer than 60 acres of 2-year-old almond trees. In one corner near their house is a fruit garden featuring 64 trees of everything from citrus to pluots to persimmons to, of course, peaches. John Martin selected the varieties, so they’d have fresh fruit nearly year-round.

Honoring their parents’ sacrifices

Gail Martin first became aware of ACE after her brother, John Ferrari, and wife Jeani of Turlock had successfully obtained protection for some of their ground several years earlier.

“When I heard about the concept, I thought, ‘This makes the most sense in the world.’ I never had second thoughts,” Martin said. “I just did it. I’ve never looked back.”

In October 2019, the California Farmland Trust celebrated six new Merced County farms, including four that were adjacent, being placed under protection. Totaling 220 acres, they include the Gail Martin Trust Farm, known by the family as the Home Ranch; Kruppa Farm; Kruppa Reed Farm; Magneson Property; Slater Trust Farm; and Tanner Farm.

The six were the single largest set of transactions the CFT had completed at one time, said CFT Executive Director Charlotte Mitchell, adding that collectively protecting six farms in the same general area was very satisfying.

“It builds upon a productive agricultural area that will forever indicate this land is for farming and not for urban growth,” she said. “CFT has a dedicated team of staff and consultants who work to guide this process through to completion. While it takes time and a lot of hard work from everyone, it is a satisfying day when the ink dries on the easement and the land is forever protected.”

Altogether, CFT completed nine easements in 2019. Regardless of the farm’s location, Mitchell said working with families who are very intentional about their future in agriculture is heartwarming.

“By this very act of conservation, they are signaling to the next generation that agriculture is crucial and the land will be available to farm,” she said. “Specifically, for Gail Martin, it also honors the previous generation for their hard work; their dedication to the soil wasn’t for nothing.”

The Ferrari Home Ranch is custom farmed by Martin’s nephews, Damon Ferrari and Darrell DiGiovanni, who also manage other pieces of family ground. In fact, they are currently working with CFT to protect additional farms the families own.