In 1918, Woodrow Wilson was our president, Daylight Saving Time was enacted, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, World War I ended, and a Cal graduate named Ralph Gorrill purchased some acreage along Butte Creek from the Leland Stanford estate. Teaming up with colleague Ernest Adams, the two set off on learning the rice industry and Ralph was able to establish a farm that would survive political, economic and family challenges. Now a small yet prominent grower of rice and orchard crops, Gorrill Ranch is set to celebrate its 100th anniversary as a thriving family-owned business.
To honor the occasion, fourth generation Managing Partner and Chairman of the Board Correen Davis, along with her family board and the company’s CEO, is organizing both a business community and private family celebration to recognize the family members, employees, industry representatives, community members, vendors and customers that have propelled the business along its history. Said Davis, “Our family culture is not one to wave a flag. But we recognize that it’s been a journey to get to this point and we want to celebrate the family, employees, industry, community, vendors and customers that have worked together through the economic times, political climates and regulatory changes that have shaped the business. We are coming from a place of humility; we understand that we just happen to be the ones here at this time at the helm in this amazing industry.”
Now employing 25 people and selling to customers such as Sunsweet and Blue Diamond, Gorrill is as respected as ever in California agriculture. As part of the Centennial, the family is hoping to have the ranch recognized by the Agriculture Heritage Club as a historical business. For the application process, Davis has been digging through the family’s files and has found, among others, a plethora of deeds, ledgers and tax forms that are reinforcing her understanding and appreciation of the family members that came before her. “One hundred years ago, my great grandfather Ralph designed the irrigation system, an extraordinarily efficient, all-gravity fed system that we still use today.”
Before Ralph’s passing in 1964, he had the foresight to bring his three daughters into the fold. The sisters ultimately opted to hire outside ranch management but continued to be intimately involved in investments and daily operations. Not common in the industry at that time, the sisters created a governance structure that included family members as board members. Still in place at the company today, the system is a testament to their legacy as women in agriculture.
Now as the fourth generation, Davis plus her 12 cousins and second cousins, begins to think about how to involve the next, succession planning and governance continue to be at the forefront of their work. “My dad’s sister, Aunt Nancy, taught me that, if our goal is for family to retain ownership, we need to always present opportunities for them to become involved, educated and knowledgeable.”
Nancy also spearheaded the family’s relationship with FBC, turning to the organization to learn about dynamics between generations and how to manage the farm from a governance perspective. Now working on a board comprising G3s and G4s, the family has attended FBC events and seminars and been willing to work through the ‘push/pull’ that occurs when transitioning from one generation to the next.
Gorrill’s Centennial coincides with Davis’ 10th anniversary at the company. “During my first few years here, when I discovered what it’s really like to work with family, FBC was instrumental. They made me feel like I wasn’t alone in our struggles as a family business. I now know that we’re all dealing with the same issues.”
Since then, Davis has sat on a couple of panels with Nancy and brought extended family members to governance trainings. She regularly communicates FBC literature and newsletter content to her business partners. In fact, directly through the governance models discovered through FBC, the family elected its first two non-family board members in 2017.
With their help, the family hopes to weather the sometimes adversarial business climate in California. Through highly-valued relationships, the company has been able to thrive in the agriculture industry, which is closely tied to environmental regulations and responsibility. Remarked Davis, “Farmers are the true environmentalists. After all, our intent is to maintain our land so that we can continue to grow for the next generation. By partnering with regulators, we can begin to understand each other and have a higher chance for success.” In fact, by partnering with fellow farmers, water districts, non-profits and government agencies, the Gorrill Ranch completed the Gorrill Ranch Fish Screen and Ladder project in 1999 which was part of a larger effort on Butte Creek to restore 25 miles of unimpeded flows along the middle reaches of Butte Creek for the benefit of migrating spring-run Chinook Salmon. This project comprises one of the nation’s most significant fisheries restoration efforts to date.
As a high school English teacher right out of college, Davis never imagined herself as part of the family business. “My father passed away when I was 20 so we never had the chance to have the conversation. The family business was never even on my radar.” But with farming in her blood and the mentorship of strong women in the family, she says she has now found her ‘calling’ and recognizes her role as an honor and opportunity to be a steward of the business.