Among the senior citizens of ethnic fresh produce grower-shippers is Ratto Bros. Inc., Modesto, Calif.

The company will mark its 50th anniversary in 2012, but the family-owned company’s roots can be traced back in California another half century.

It was 1905 when Antone Ratto launched his vegetable business in the San Francisco Bay Area, delivering fresh produce to his customers from a horse-drawn cart.

In 1962, Ratto’s five sons expanded their operations to the San Joaquin Valley and began growing and packing produce.

Frank Ratto, vice president of marketing, represents the third Ratto generation. As did his grandfather, who catered to Italians, Ratto Bros. has carved a niche in the fresh produce industry, Frank Ratto said.

“We’re predominantly ethnic-based produce, not mainstream,” he said.

The Italian influence remains. Ratto Bros. offers a variety of herbs, Italian parsley, fennel and radicchio, but other cultures have shouldered their way into the inventory.

The company markets a variety of southern greens, baby bok choy, mustards, parsnips, kale, cilantro, green, red and rainbow chard and more. Seasonal offerings include such items as celeriac, a widely used commodity during Passover.

“We send truckloads of celeriac to the Jewish trade in New York,” Ratto said.

Ratto Bros. harvests and packs the celeriac using kosher techniques, he said.

The Ratto Bros. inventory now runs to more than 50 items, most of which are available year-round, Ratto said. But the company is not opposed to adding commodities, as evidenced by its recent expansion into vegetables targeted at Korean-Americans. 

It was a Los Angeles-based Korean vegetables wholesaler that approached Ratto Bros. and asked the company to grow the commodities.

“They were pleased with our quality and with our special cooling facilities,” Ratto said. “Now we serve them year-round with a truckload a week during the winter and up to two truckloads a week in the summer.”

The commodities include yulmoo, similar to a turnip green with a long spindly root; putbechu; baby napa cabbage; and chong gak moo, also similar to a turnip green but with a bulbous-type root, he said.

“Koreans are incredible vegetable consumers,” Ratto said.

Ratto said he also sees a growing demand from yet another ethnic group. Beets, leeks, green, red and savoy cabbages are just some of the commodities sought by Eastern Europeans from Russia and other former Soviet Bloc countries, he said.

“They’re asking for many items that are used in stews and soups,” Ratto said.

Ratto Bros. markets a limited number of Hispanic produce items, mostly cilantro and cactus leaves.

The company’s involvement in the fresh produce industry reaches outside growing, packing, shipping and marketing.

Another third-generation family member, Ron Ratto, president, was named an alternate to the advisory board of directors for the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

To keep up with the production from the company’s acreage and its grower-partners, Ratto Bros. built a 70,000-square-foot cooling and packinghouse in 2004. The facility, which includes hydro, vacuum and forced air cooling methods, is just minutes from the company’s farmland, Ratto said.

The company’s farmland also takes the high tech approach. Global positioning equipment guides planters. Computers monitor each crop, row by row, determine when to irrigate and fertilize and control the emitters.

Ratto Bros. also operates its own fleet of refrigerated trucks.

Sales to distributors that serve restaurants keep the company in the foodservice loop. Unlike Grandfather Ratto, who delivered his produce door to door, the customer base of Ratto Bros. is mostly retail, Ratto said, and an ongoing learning experience.

“It’s amazing how many of these veggies cross over between nationalities,” Ratto said.

Cilantro is widely identified with Hispanic cultures, but Indians are huge consumers of cilantro, he said.

“Retailers have told me their Indian shoppers often don’t want just a bunch of cilantro, they want to buy an entire carton,” Ratto said.