Art Lafranchi is the intersection of style and substance.
Attorney, dairy farmer, grape grower and community leader, Lafranchi is as comfortable in his law office working with a family on estate planning as he is balancing feed rations for the Holsteins at his Santa Rosa dairy. He is the patriarch of the Lafranchi family, a man of the land and vocal advocate for agriculture – a great man who friends describe as the “original class act.”
Lafranchi’s lifetime of achievement, which simultaneously spans a distinguished legal career, thriving farm operation and legacy of community service, is being recognized – and honored - by Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the county’s largest and most influential agricultural organization. Lafranchi, 75, is being inducted into the
Sonoma County Farm Bureau Hall of Fame in recognition of his dedication to agriculture and his tireless efforts to bridge the gap between urban and rural residents by educating them about agriculture and farm life. For decades, Lafranchi has invited students to his ranch where he patiently explains the challenges and rewards of farming in Sonoma County. He even lets the students try their hand at artificially inseminating a cow, a task that has become a rite of passage for the youthful visitors.
Farm Bureau leaders said Lafranchi’s role as a farmer-lawyer and agricultural ambassador have earned him a prominent place in the Hall of Fame, a who’s who of the agricultural greats in Sonoma County.
“Art exemplifies the meaning of lifetime achievement to agriculture and community. He has been a passionate advocate for agriculture and always willing to teach others about the importance and realities of the dairy business,” said Lex McCorvey, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “Art’s work as a dairyman, grape grower and attorney to the agricultural community, has benefited many who work the land and produce our food.”
As a member of the Hall of Fame, Lafranchi joins a revered group of agricultural leaders and pioneer ranchers who have been the guiding force in preserving, protecting and propelling Sonoma County’s $3 billion farming industry. As the 2012 recipient, Lafranchi joins other legendary leaders like Richard Kunde, Henry Trione and Angelo Sangiacomo in the Farm Bureau Hall of Fame.
Lafranchi will be honored at Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration on July 19 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor. Also being honored are Sebastopol sheep ranchers Rex and Kerry Williams, who were named Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year and Geyserville grape grower Al Cadd, who will receive the Luther Burbank Conservation Award.
The Love of the Land event, open to the public, is a benefit to preserve and protect Sonoma County farmlands and clean water while honoring those who are leading the way for agriculture.
The celebration includes a food and wine reception from 5 to 7 p.m. A dinner featuring Sonoma County grown products will be served at 7 p.m. Dinner will be followed by the awards presentations and live auction. Reservations can be made online or by calling the Farm Bureau office at 544-5575.
Lafranchi’s agriculture roots run deep in the North Bay. His great grandfather, Charles Martin, an immigrant from Switzerland, settled in Marin County in 1855 to establish a dairy, beginning the family’s long tradition of dairy farming in Marin and Sonoma counties. Lafranchi, the son of the late Fred and Zelma Lafranchi, grew up on the family’s dairy ranch in Nicasio where he learned the value of hard work and gained a deep-seated appreciation for the cow culture that defined his family.
Following high school, Lafranchi attended Santa Clara University and then law school at the University of San Francisco where he graduated with his law degree in 1963.
In 1962, Lafranchi’s father started a new dairy on a 250 acre ranch off Piner Road in west Santa Rosa. Lafranchi took an active role in establishing and managing the dairy even while he was launching his law practice, which now spans 50 years. He eventually took over the dairy, called “Rancho Laguna,” because of its proximity to the Laguna de Santa Rosa, the waterway that snakes through west Sonoma County on its way to the Russian River.
“I was born and raised in agriculture and have always just loved being involved in agriculture and managing the ranch,” said Lafranchi, who judiciously balanced his dual career as farmer and lawyer for the last half century. He likes the professional mix and the different people that his legal practice and farming brought into his life.
“As an attorney, I like the idea of helping people maneuver their way through legal issues, like estate planning or closing a real estate deal. I enjoy the challenges and the prospect of learning something new on a daily basis because laws are always changing,” said Lafranchi.
On the other hand, he said, it was nice to come home to his cows and get a good dose of reality.
“Being on a dairy is a very humbling kind of experience,” he said. “Cows are only interested in you if you are going to feed them. If you aren’t going to feed them they head off to the next person who might throw them some hay.”
Today, Rancho Laguna milks 450 cows, shipping its milk to Clover-Stornetta Farms in Petaluma. Lafranchi grows 150 acres of corn, which is made into silage for the dairy cows. He said producing a portion of his own feed has helped him survive in the dairy business, which is financially challenging because of high production costs and low prices for conventionally-produced milk.
Lafranchi said the day-to-day work on the ranch is done by the farm crew, ably headed by Carlos Soria, who has worked at the Lafranchi ranch for 34 years and runs it like it was his own. Lafranchi said he would have sold the dairy cows years ago if it wasn’t for Carlos and his managerial expertise as the foreman of Rancho Laguna.
Five years ago, Lafranchi, concerned about the future of dairy farming in Sonoma County, began planting cool climate wine grapes on his ranch, which is in the Russian River Valley. Today there are 61 acres of wine grapes, which diversifies the farming operation and provides a financial hedge to the ups-and-downs of the milk market.
“The dairy situation was so volatile that I began converting some of the farmland to vineyards,” said Lafranchi. “I felt I had to do something to create a more stable business environment.”
Lafranchi’s dedication to agriculture and his support of agricultural education has made him a valuable member of the board of directors of the Farm Bureau Foundation of Sonoma County, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the next generation of agricultural leaders as well as the urban public about farming issues. Lafranchi served as a director and president of the Community Foundation of Sonoma County and is a director and past president of the United Way.
Lafranchi and his wife Diane have five grown children, Rich, Ken and Jeff Lafranchi, Debbie Merizon and Teri Alvarez and 10 grandchildren.