Two multi-generational farming families recently formed a partnership on land in Gilroy that aims to preserve agriculture for the long haul in Santa Clara Valley—which is becoming increasingly difficult to do—and bring more fresh, locally grown and organic produce directly to households, restaurants and distributors.
Spade & Plow, which is owned and operated by the Thorp family, has entered a long-term lease with the legendary Van Dyke Ranch in Gilroy. The 100-acre lease will allow Spade & Plow to increase their production of certified organic produce, according to owners Sam, Mike and Nick Thorp.
But more importantly, the lease will give Spade & Plow the opportunity to “preserve the precious agricultural heritage that women like Betty Van Dyke worked so hard to build,” says a press release from Spade & Plow. Van Dyke founded Van Dyke Ranch on Crews Road in Gilroy in 1968, and has been a prolific producer of apricots and cherries for most of the time since then.
“It feels like such an honor to carry on the tradition of the Van Dykes; an honor and a huge responsibility to grow the farm in a way that we know would make Van Dyke’s founder and trailblazer, Betty Van Dyke proud,” Sam Thorp said. “With our long term partnership with the Van Dykes we have such a clear opportunity to build not only a farm but a community that can show the potential for what the next generation of Santa Clara Valley agriculture looks like.”
Spade & Plow was founded in 2015 by Mike Thorp and his two sons, Nick and Sam. The sons are the fifth generation in the family who have farmed for a living, and Spade & Plow was founded after the offspring became frustrated with their previous lives in corporate agriculture.
Spade & Plow started with the idea of connecting the consumer directly to the farmer and “growing the best tasting varieties of organic fruits and vegetables for the South Bay community,” says the press release. They saw the threat of development and the disappearing farmland of “the Valley of the Heart’s Delight” and wanted to preserve it.
The small farm runs a Community Supported Agriculture program that offers home deliveries and pickup locations of fresh produce for customers throughout Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. They also work with local produce distributors and retailers, restaurants throughout the Bay Area and local farmers markets.
But Spade & Plow has struggled with a series of short-term leases in South Santa Clara County, on properties ripe for encroaching manmade development since the farm’s founding. In the last 30 years, more than 15,000 acres of farmland in Santa Clara County have been lost to such development, according to local agriculture officials.
The Thorps’ new partnership with Van Dyke Ranch offers more stability and more growing space. It also aims to bolster the Gilroy ranch’s legacy as a careful steward of the land and devotee to certified organic growing. Betty Van Dyke and Mike Thorp were among the first 100 farmers in the nation to transition their farms to certified organic, according to the press release.
Van Dyke’s father immigrated from Croatia in the early 1900s, and by the 1920s had purchased a few acres in Cupertino. Before long, they were pushed out by increasingly high residential property taxes, says the press release.
In 1968, the Van Dykes sold the last of their land in Cupertino and headed to Gilroy, where they purchased the property that Spade & Plow currently resides on. The property had a lengthy history of producing thriving crops such as prune trees and strawberries, says the press release.
The Van Dyke Ranch soon planted 40 acres of Blenheim apricots and 20 acres of Bing cherries—both of which became the farming family’s flagship fruits over the next several decades.
Betty Van Dyke officially certified the Gilroy farm as a California organic grower in 1986, according to the Thorps. Taking care of the fruit and soil was a priority for Betty’s father, and he knew that pesticides and fertilizers wouldn’t help.
“My grandfather never liked using chemicals back then, anyways,” said Peter Van Dyke, Betty’s son and most recent operator of the ranch. “It was his personal preference, and he was always very limited in what he used. Never fertilizer, always cover crops.”
Betty Van Dyke ran the ranch until 1999 and remained involved in ensuring the property stayed organic until her death in 2021.
“A true glass ceiling breaker,” Peter Van Dyke dubs his mom. “I knew immediately when Sam Thorp contacted us that it was the perfect match. A family farm with kids that are my kid’s age but want to keep farming. It was like God sent them to us.”
Although many of the Van Dyke Ranch’s fruit trees planted in the ‘60s have passed their prime production capacities in recent years, the Thorps plan to keep the legacy going with a few new rows of apricots, cherries and persimmons, Sam Thorp said. In future years, they would like to experiment with a small crop of avocados, kiwis and citrus fruits.
But for the most part, Spade & Plow has converted the 100-acre parcel to organic vegetable row crops and fig trees since they entered the lease last fall. By the end of this week, they aim to have the entire property converted to lifted beds, Thorp added.
“We’re doing a lot of cover crops too, and crop rotation to make sure we’re keeping the soil fertility good and keeping true to organic standards—and true to what the Van Dykes wanted to make sure property stayed organic,” Thorp said.