Meet a Farmer: Ken Christopher of Christopher Ranch
You can feel the passion in Ken Christopher’s words as he shares what the Christopher Ranch farming legacy means to him and why giving back to the community is such a core value for his family. This dynamic, future thinking MBA graduate helps the family navigate the increasingly complex business environment and has an eye on the future while holding true to the values of the past.
CA GROWN: What are you doing today?
Ken: We’re simultaneously managing our inventories from last year’s crop while also getting ready for our new crop harvest in just eight short weeks. As garlic is harvested just one time a year, we only have one shot to get everything right. The weather we’ve had this year has been absolutely perfect for growing garlic, and we’re anticipating the strongest crop in decades. It’s an exciting time at Christopher Ranch, demand for our California garlic remains very strong despite a deluge of cheap garlic from overseas. For 2018, we’ve been focused on investing back into the business, by upgrading our production facilities and acquiring more land for future expansion. Most excitingly, we’re preparing for July 1st 2018, when Christopher Ranch will become one of the largest companies in the USA to offer a $15/hour minimum wage for all of our employees. Corporate Social Responsibility is the cornerstone of our company, and we’re proud of the steps we’re taking to position our farm for the future.
CA GROWN: What is your favorite part of farming?
Ken: I’d have to say that there are three things that make farming an essential part of my life; Challenges, Community, and Legacy. As a businessman, I absolutely love the thrill of strategic application and decision making. With a perishable product like garlic (with only one harvest per year), every day brings new challenges and opportunities, adding a sense of dynamism to our business operations. Secondly, Christopher Ranch is intrinsically tied to our hometown of Gilroy. As the flagship business in the Garlic Capital of the World, I love that what I do every day makes an impact on a larger scale. On a personal note, my family has been farming for generations, and it’s a tremendous honor to steward that legacy into the future. Farming is and will always be the essential core to the Christopher family legacy.
CA GROWN: How do you give back to the community?
Ken: From large scale projects to dedicated donations for community groups, Christopher Ranch has always been there for our community. One of the best high schools in the state, Christopher High School, is named after my family and was built in part due to a major donation by my grandfather. Additionally, thanks to the Ranch’s donations just this year, Christopher High is now one of the only high schools in the state to have a Chrome Book cart in every class. We offer tens of thousands of dollars of scholarships for college-bound seniors every year as well.
Christopher Ranch tends to follow the motto “Give where you live” and to that end, we donate to local theatre groups, schools, medical nonprofits, and programs that directly benefit at-risk youth. We’re as diversified in our philanthropy as any company can be, and we’re proud of the impact that we make in our hometown.
Most significantly remains our partnership with the world famous Gilroy Garlic Festival. As the official garlic of the Festival, we literally donate tons of fresh garlic every single year. Over a hundred thousand people descend onto Gilroy over the last weekend in July every year, and it’s become a key part of both Christopher Ranch and Gilroy’s identity.
CA GROWN: What drew you into farming?
Ken: I’ve always known that my place would be at my family’s farm. I grew up with the farm, and it’s always been a major part of my life. After undergrad and then business school, I had originally intended on working in New York for a time, but the pull of the farm was too strong to ignore. I’m proud that I’ve been able to apply my MBA to the family business, and to be a leader among a new generation of farmers. The actions of our competition, both foreign and domestic, along with an increasingly complex business environment paved the way for me to join the farm at exactly the right time. I get to come into work every day, confident that my father and my grandfather have full faith in my capabilities and strategic direction. It’s a rare privilege and I’m blessed to serve in the role that I have in our family farm.
CA GROWN: What are your hobbies or past times when you are not farming?
Ken: I’m a huge fan of foreign travel. There’s very few things I love more than to take off to distant parts of the world and explore other cultures. A couple times a year, I’ll get out to South Africa, East Asia, or Western Europe, even if it’s just for a few days. I find experiencing interactions across a broad spectrum of cultures very rewarding. Sometimes we all forget that there is a great big world out there, and in times of great stress or frustration concerning the business, it’s helpful to remember that.
I’m also that proud dog dad to two massive Siberian Huskies. On weekends, we go on runs or hikes on local trails up in the Santa Cruz mountains. It’s a great way to stay in shape and get out and explore nature right here in our backyard. Gilroy has some of the best weather any town could ask for, so I spend a lot of time either on those trails or at Capitola beach, just 40 short minutes away.
CA GROWN: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start farming?
Ken: Christopher Ranch has found a lot of success in being a single commodity specialist. Yes, it’s true that we sell dozens of other products, but garlic represents over 90% of our sales. In becoming the best at just one thing, you tend to build up a natural comparative advantage to other farms. My advice would be to focus like a laser in being absolutely unrivaled in one commodity. In the same vein of striving for excellence, I’d recommend being several steps ahead of both legal requirements and trends. Food Safety, transparency, and social justice are here to stay- and new farmers would be wise to develop a program that pivots around those core tenants.
CA GROWN: What are one or two things you do on the farm to be sustainable?
Ken: Over the past decade we’ve managed to double our organic garlic acreage. It’s been a herculean effort, and involved a lot of people in multiple departments, but we finally did it. As organic garlic is much harder and more expensive to grow and harvest, we have to be methodical in our approach. In converting more and more of our land to organic use, and in developing true organic seed, we’ve come a long way in making an aggressive push to be more sustainable. At our home Ranch, we’ve installed VFD’s (variable frequency drives) in our production areas to avoid pulling energy at peak times, changed packaging to reduce the amount of plastics that we use, developed an extensive recycling program, and we’re the pioneers in utilizing drip irrigation in the field. In recent days, we’ve discussed installing solar power for our production areas, and even potentially purchasing new Tesla electric semi-trucks! As farmers, we know the importance of taking care of our planet, and we want to continue to do everything that we can to lower our carbon footprint.