Ernie Righetti, local agriculturalist, dies at age 97

Ernie Righetti poses in his Edna Valley home in 2008 amid stuffed wild sheep that he collected during hunting trips around the world.
Ernie Righetti poses in his Edna Valley home in 2008 amid stuffed wild sheep that he collected during hunting trips around the world. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Ernest Righetti, pioneering Edna Valley farmer and pillar of the county’s agricultural community, died Sunday. He was 97.

He had been in ill health and under hospice care recently. He died late Sunday night at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, where he had been treated since Tuesday, said son David Righetti.

Ernie, as everyone called him, will be remembered as an agricultural visionary with a strong work ethic, said longtime friend Jim Brabeck, president of Farm Supply Co.

“I think Ernie was one of the hardest-working individuals I ever met,” Brabeck said. “He did not know the meaning of the word quit. He helped shape my character and taught me the meaning of a strong work ethic.”

Righetti’s sons declined to talk about their father, saying they are writing their own tribute to the man.

Righetti lived his entire life in Edna Valley just south of San Luis Obispo, where he managed the Righetti Ranch. He was frequently seen riding his quad all-terrain vehicle throughout the property.

In 1967, he introduced a new crop to the area: avocados. The ranch now has more than 200 acres of avocados and has expanded into cattle and grapes.

“He was a real visionary in what he did in the Edna Valley, planting the first avocado farm,” Brabeck said.

Righetti also established the largest private water reservoir in the county, which he stocked with rainbow trout in 1967. Although some of the neighbors objected to expanding the reservoir to nearly 1,000 acre-feet, it provided the ranch with a reliable water source and helped stabilize groundwater in the area, Brabeck said.

Righetti was a longtime director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau and served as its president from 1975 to 1977. The bureau named him Agriculturalist of the Year in 1991.

He was active with 4-H and Future Farmers of America, along with the Young Republicans and the Republican Central Committee.

He also served four terms as a director on the California Avocado Commission. In 1986, he traveled to China with the Citrus/Avocado Citizens Ambassador Program to exchange information with farmers there.

Tom Bellamore, president of the California Avocado Commission, described Righetti as an icon and pioneer in avocado farming. He remained bullish about avocados even as the industry faced such challenges as imports from Mexico.

“What stands out to me about Ernie was his unfailing optimism,” Bellamore said.

Righetti was a very proficient bulldozer operator and served as a contract firefighter with the California Department of Fire. He was also an international hunter, traveling all over the world to bag big game.

Righetti often told Brabeck that his greatest legacy is his family. He was proud that three of his four sons continue to work on the ranch.

He is survived by his wife, Susan, and sons Scott of Washington, D.C., and Craig, Don and David of San Luis Obispo. Plans for memorial services are pending.