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Art Lafranchi Remembered as Sonoma County’s Eloquent Agricultural Ambassador

More than 600 attend service for the longtime rancher and attorney

By Tim Tesconi

Art Lafranchi, a pillar of both the agricultural industry and the Sonoma County legal community, is being remembered as a man of many passions whose remarkable life encompassed family, farm, community and the law.

Lafranchi, who was 76, died Oct. 14 in a Santa Rosa hospital of heart and kidney failure. Attorney, dairy farmer, grape grower and community leader, Lafranchi’s life crisscrossed several cultures and, remarkably, he fit into all of them. He was as comfortable in his law office working with a family on estate planning as he was balancing feed rations for the cows at his Santa Rosa dairy. He was 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 had been in failing health since last spring but until the end he kept the sharp wit that was his hallmark. It was testament to his life and character that more than 600 people attended his service on Oct. 19 at Resurrection Parish Church where a Funeral Mass was concelebrated by Father David Shaw, pastor of Resurrection Parish, and Father Gary Lombardi, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Petaluma. The priests, who knew and loved Lafranchi, eulogized him as a man of faith who scripted his own eulogy by the life he lived. Lafranchi saw life through the eyes of promise and never took for granted the gift of family and the comfort of friends.

In July, Lafranchi was inducted into the Sonoma County Farm Bureau Hall of Fame at Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard. The Hall of Fame Award recognized Lafranchi’s lifetime of achievement in agriculture and his tireless efforts to educate kids about the thriving farming industry in Sonoma County.

For decades he invited urban students in the Tomorrow’s Leaders Today program to his farm on the western end of Piner Road to experience the smells, sights and sounds of a working ranch. He would explain the challenges of farming on the urban edge and describe the joys of coming home from the office to throw hay to his cows. He would even allow the students to try their hand at artificially inseminating a cow, a task that has become a rite of passage for the students in the leadership program.

Farm Bureau leaders said Lafranchi’s multiple roles as a farmer-lawyer and agricultural ambassador earned him the prominent place he now holds in the Farm Bureau Hall of Fame, which is a who’s who of the agricultural greats in Sonoma County.

“Art exemplified the meaning of lifetime achievement to agriculture and community. He was a passionate advocate for agriculture and was always willing to teach others about the importance and realities of the dairy business. He will be missed,” said Lex McCorvey, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

McCorvey said Lafranchi had a huge and enduring impact on Sonoma County agriculture.

“Art’s work as a dairyman, grape grower and attorney to the agricultural community, benefited many who work the land and produce our food,” said McCorvey.

Lafranchi’s agriculture roots ran 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. Born in Petaluma, 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. He attended a one-room school in Nicasio before transferring to St. Anselm Elementary School in San Anselmo

Following graduation from Marin Catholic high school, where he was student body president, 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 spanned 50 years when illness forced him to retire this year.  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,” Lafranchi said an interview this summer. “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.

Lafranchi loved coming home to his cows and getting 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.”

At this time, the dairy is continuing under the management Carlos Soria, who has worked at the Lafranchi ranch for 34 years. Lafranchi frequently mentioned that 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.

Lafranchi’s dedication to agriculture and his support of agricultural education 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 was a director and past president of the United Way.

Lafranchi is survived by Diane, his wife of more than 55 years, sons, Ken and Richard Lafranchi, both of Santa Rosa,  and Jeff Lafranchi of San Luis Obispo; daughters, Debbie Merizon of Eldorado Hills and Teri Alvarez of Forestville; his sister Estelle Moretti of Petaluma; his brother Ed Lafranchi of Livermore and by 12 grandchildren.

Because of Lafranchi’s interest in agricultural literacy, the Farm Bureau Foundation of Sonoma County has established a memorial fund in Lafranchi’s name that will be used for agricultural education programs and scholarships. Checks can be made to the Arthur Lafranchi Memorial Fund and mailed to the Farm Bureau Foundation of Sonoma County, 970 Piner Road, Santa Rosa, 95403.

Arthur L. Lafranchi
July 17, 1936 – Oct. 14, 2012

Please support the:

Arthur L. Lafranchi  Memorial Fund
For Agricultural Education 

The memorial fund honors the legacy of Art Lafranchi, a dairyman and attorney, who was dedicated to educating Sonoma County residents about the challenges and benefits of the county’s thriving farming industry. Funds will be used to sponsor “Ag Days” for urban school children, scholarships for agriculture students, support for “Ag in the Classroom” and other programs that raise agricultural awareness.

Make checks payable to the Arthur L. Lafranchi Memorial Fund
Send to:
Farm Bureau Foundation of Sonoma County
970 Piner Road
Santa Rosa, Calif. 95403

Farm Bureau Foundation is a 501 C 3 charitable trust. Tax Identification # 75-3187688

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