The home ranch I farm today was purchase in 1928 by my Grandfather, Bill Maggini. The 60 acre “home” ranch is located in the northern part of San Benito County off of Acquistapace Road. This little piece of heaven has seen many transformations since then. When my grandfather bought the ranch it was planted in 30 acres of prune trees and 30 acres of peach trees. It wasn’t long before the peach trees were removed, making way for more profitable seed crops. A variety of vegetables such as celery, carrots, tomatoes and mustard were planted in the rich soil. Colorful zinnias were planted as seed crops. My mother recalls how beautiful it was to walk out the front door and gaze upon 30 acres of gorgeous flowers. To her, that was the perfect crop. My mother, Frances Swank, and my aunt, Eleanor Lanini, grew up on this ranch. They both ventured out to pursue their own lives but have returned to this magical place of their youths. Unfortunately Eleanor has passed away but my mother still lives today.
I was raised on a dairy farm in Calistoga along with my two brothers Bill and Allan. Growing up we worked helping my dad milk the cows. We raised and showed pigs and cows at county and state fairs. The Cow Palace and the Sacramento State Fair were just a couple of the many places we showed our livestock. There wasn’t much free time (probably not a bad thing) but it was a good place to grow up. In 1974 my family decided to pack up, including the cows, and move to the home ranch where my grandmother still lived. We rented a dairy off of San Felipe Road and my father and I took up dairy farming in San Benito County. At this point that the home ranch was planted entirely in alfalfa and grandma said NO COWS!
My older brothers had gone off to pursue their own dreams. I attended Cal Poly as a Dairy Science major from 1974 to 1977. I would come home on the weekends to help my father with the dairy. One of the hardest things about having a dairy is the cows never take a day off, always needing to be milked seven days a week rain or shine or Christmas! At some point my father and I became partners and continued in the dairy business until the government bought us out in the mid 80’s. Imagine getting paid NOT to produce milk!
I raised my family in the house my grandparents and parents had lived. It was a very small house that has seen many changes and additions. As the families who lived there grew, so did the house. This house holds a lot of memories for me. My son Keith and daughter Casey were born here. They playing basketball in the front yard, worked at the fruit stands and farmers markets.They left the ranch for a different type of life taking with them the memories that only comes from growing up on a ranch.
It was 1988, the cows were gone and there was no need for the alfalfa grown on the home ranch. We somehow had to make a living off this little piece of paradise so we entered into the biggest crap shoot of our lives, farming! What would we plant? No real plan we started with a variety of vegetables.
After tasting one of our “home grown” tomatoes I knew there had to be a market for what I considered to be the best tasting tomato ever. Besides tomatoes, green beans, sweet corn, English peas and melons became some of our favorite things to grow. We added fall ornamentals consisting of several varieties of Indian Corn, pumpkins and gourds. Soon our home ranch wasn’t big enough to grow all we needed. Although we no longer had the dairy we still rented land where we grew alfalfa and oat hay for the cows. We expanded our farming by adding 210 acres to our growing rotation.
For several years I tended a cherry orchard in the Santa Clara Valley, now days you can find a Kaiser Hospital where the orchard once was. That experience led me to plant my own cherries once again altering the face of the home ranch. They may not be zinnias, but when the orchard is in bloom it is certainly a beautiful sight.
For many years we have kept the ranch alive by selling our produce at farmers markets, our own produce stands and to the wholesale market. I love farming but the struggle for the small farmer to stay in business seems to only get harder. After meeting Bonnie, who has become my partner in business and life, I decided to pursue an idea of mine. I knew if we were going to turn a profit we were going to have to diversify. I had visited a corn maze in Woodland after a friend suggested I “check it out”. A corn maze is a field of corn with pathways cut into it. These pathways have twists and turns and seem to go on forever. So I planted the corn.....
Bonnie is a designer in her own right with a background in apparel design and interior design. She took on the challenge of designing the maze saying “It’s just a different medium, right?” Once we had the design we had to figure out how to cut it.
Once we had the design we had to figure out how to cut it. There were no “Do It Yourself” handbooks on creating a corn maze but we came up with an idea. We had a design and now we had a plan. Would it work? Would people come? Would the weather be good?
People came and seemed to have a good time. The weather however was the worst we had seen in several years. Although we had a lot of mud people still came and had fun. I still hear stories about the trips to the maze and muddy shoes never to be worn again. But they still had fun!
Despite the hard work and disappointing weather we decided to try it again. Learning so much the first year we thought it could only get better, right? We went from an 8 acre maze in 2000 to a 12 acre maze in 2001. The design was more fun and challenging. We went from having a few people at night haunting the maze to a real haunted ranch built right into the maze. The weather was better than we hoped, no muddy shoes. We had created something fun for families to do together in our community and people seemed to appreciate it. Yes it did get better and yes more people came. Along with the maze we also had a pumpkin patch where we were able to sell our pumpkins and ornamentals. It seems to be a winning combination.
While planning our 2001 maze Bonnie contacted a friend of her nieces, to see if he might be interested in putting together a haunt for our October maze. It took some doing to convince his co-workers that Hollister wasn’t really that far from the bay area, but he did. Once they saw the corn field their imaginations went wild. None of them had ever done an open-air haunt before. Using a lot of barn wood and props found around the home ranch (things that have been there for years) they created the Mystery Ranch. I don’t think one of the group lived within 45 minute of Hollister. They ran the Ranch three nights a week, many of them not getting home until after three in the morning.
By 2013 we had realized the Mystery Ranch had become predictable and needed a change so we cleaned house and hired Sally Hail to run our haunted attraction. She’s a trained professional and ran the show like a theater production with a storyline. The first two years our new “Terror in the Corn” was the continuing story of “Alien Invasion”. In 2015 we are introducing our new haunted show “Notorious New Orleans” and couldn’t be more excited with the directions things were going.
We hadn’t had a produce stand for several years and we know that there are some of you that miss that. For two years between 2002 and 2003 we offered a produce delivery service. It was very successful and we had many loyal customers. Unfortunately in 2004 we decided to drop the delivery service and concentrate on developing our home ranch sales.
In 2000 we started selling our fresh “Swank Farms Heirloom Salsa” at Farmers Markets. We now make a Hot Salsa, Mild Salsa, Roasted Corn Salsa and a seasonal Cantaloupe Salsa, all made with our own fresh produce.
Living in California we soon realized we needed to start farming organic. Following the guidelines set up by the CCOF, Organic Certification, Trade Association, Education & Outreach, Political Advocacy. This is not an easy process but we were proud to say we farm over 100 acres organic. Note: This number has gone from 100 acres to 47 due to the sale of the San Felipe ranch where we rented land for over forty years.
Bonnie, who had a successful interior design business for many years became a tremendous asset to our operation. While in college, she studied apparel design. She worked for a major department store as a display manager for several years. She decided to stay home when her first son Joey was born. After her second son Andrew came along and the decision to move to Hollister was made, she decided to use her knowledge of apparel design and display to start her own business. Working out of her home she could be with her children. Her love for design and sewing went from clothing to windows, creating and installing her designs. Needless to say her flair for design and creativity has brought a whole new element to Swank Farms.
Today Bonnie and I work together full time making Swank Farms Produce the best it can be. Each year we have been together we have made such great strides and are extremely proud of what we have accomplished over our years together. Together we strive to bring you the best produce we can possibly grow along with abundance of family fun!
We hope to see you this Fall!