Sonoma County’s Rich Farming History: Spotlight on Dutton Ranch’s Multi-Generational Story

Prune harvestinag at Warren Dutton Ranch in the early 1900’s on Graton Road in Sebastopol

For more than 150 years, agriculture, anchored by family farms, has been the backbone of the Sonoma County economy while defining the county’s landscape and way of life. As historian and Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron so eloquently states, “Sonoma County’s history begins and ends with the land…We are, despite the march of time, still a farm county – with promise that it will endure.”

And agriculture has endured by changing. Once prominent cash crops like hops, potatoes, cherries and prunes have come and gone. But dedicated farmers, like the Dutton Family, founding members and longtime supporters of Sonoma County Farm Trails, have stayed on the land by adapting their farming practices to market changes. The Dutton family has farmed here since 1852, growing everything from potatoes to prunes and hay to pears in the evolving agricultural landscape. Today brothers Steve and Joe Dutton, fifth generation farmers, are focused on top-tier wine grapes but, in a nod to their farming past, still farm more than 200 acres of Organic apples including Gravensteins under Dutton Ranch.

The determination of old farming families to preserve their farmland and nurture a thriving farming community in Sonoma County is the envy of other regions in California and throughout
the nation. In the 1960’s there were worries that Sonoma County would become like other rapidly developing counties, with orchards and farmland paved over by houses and shopping
malls. But Sonoma County farmers vowed that would not happen. They supported strict zoning  measures that preserved land for farming.

Since the 1850’s when pioneer farmers began supplying potatoes, wheat, butter and other staples to hungry gold miners, Sonoma County has been a major food shed for the San Francisco Bay
Area. The first half of the 20 th Century – particularly the era from 1920 to 1940 – is what historians consider the Golden Age of Sonoma County agriculture. There were more than 7,000
farms spread over more than 700,000 acres producing crops and livestock beyond the imagination of early day farmers.

In 1920, a dozen major crops combined to make Sonoma County the eighth ranking county in the entire nation in farm production. It was first nationally in wine grapes, first in eggs and poultry; second in prunes, canning cherries and hops, as well as being a national leader in the production of apples, milk and livestock. Today the county’s farm economy is propelled by wine grapes, which cover 60,000 of the county’s one million acres. But there are 500,000 acres devoted to pastureland and the small  farms and orchards that produce specialty crops like berries and Asian pears and artisan foods like goat cheese and peach jam.

Before and after horticulturist Luther Burbank selected Sonoma County for the plant breeding experiments that revolutionized agriculture, our farmers have diligently worked the land to make Sonoma County the premier wine and food region of California. The late Warren Dutton Jr. is one of the celebrated pioneers of the premium wine grape industry. But Warren would have been just as happy growing prunes if they provided the financial returns to do what he loved – farming.

The Dutton family and prunes hold a special place in the history of Sonoma County agriculture. Steve and Joe Dutton’s great, great uncle Warren Dutton, their father’s namesake, leased some land in west Santa Rosa in the spring of 1881 with the idea of growing prunes, a crop offering promise. Dutton asked nurseryman Luther Burbank, who had arrived from his native Massachusetts just six years earlier, to deliver 20,000 French prune trees by the fall. The big order, which other nurseries deemed impossible, was delivered on schedule. The amazing horticultural feat not only launched a new farming endeavor but gave birth to the legend of Burbank’s genius as plant wizard.

The Dutton family grew prunes for nearly a century but by the 1960’s prices were plummeting as production shifted to the Sacramento Valley. Warren Dutton Jr. realized he needed a new crop and boldly took a chance to plant Chardonnay grapes in west Sonoma County, now an area recognized for its world class Chardonnay and other cool climate wine grapes like Pinot Noir. Today the Duttons farm more than 1,000 acres of vineyards in western Sonoma County, selling their grapes to more than 50 wineries, with some of their fruit allocated to their own wine labels, Dutton Estate and Dutton-Goldfield.

As agriculture continues to redefine itself, multi-generational farming families like the Duttons are intricately immersed in the unfolding next chapter of farming’s enduring role in Sonoma County.


About the Author: Tim Tesconi is a Director & Treasurer of Farm Trails. A native and lifelong resident of Sonoma County, he was the agriculture reporter for the- Press Democrat for 33 years. In 2006, he joined the staff of Sonoma County Farm Bureau where he wrote for the Sonoma-Marin Farm News and coordinated agriculture education programs. He served as Farm Bureau’s Executive Director for three years, retiring in 2015. Tesconi & his family live in Healdsburg.