Ross Merrill lives on the Reservation Road ranch where he grew up, on farmland between Fort Ord and the Salinas River. When he was a kid, he could hear cars zooming on the track at Laguna Seca, and he used to sneak onto the former Army base with his bike, winding his way to a view of the races. When he was 14, before he was old enough to drive, he saw a car that got him dreaming. “There was a Porsche running around in 1973 that caught my eye. It went on to the championship that year, and that car started my fascination,” Merrill says. Two years later, at 16, he bought his first Porsche, and it was the start of a lifelong hobby fixing up cars and racing them at Laguna Seca.
Today, Merrill still races, and it’s become a family affair. Years back, his wife, Lauren, joined him in amateur races at Laguna Seca, and their two sons, Thomas and Jonathan, both got into racing via go-karting. (To travel to the competitive go-karting circuit, Merrill also became a pilot.) Today, Thomas is a pro racer and Jonathan is the fourth generation to take up the family business as a farm manager at Merrill Farms, where Ross is CEO.
Merrill now serves as president of the Laguna Seca Raceway Foundation, and is on the board of the Bob Hoover Academy, a pilot-training program that is part of an alternative high school run by the Monterey County Office of Education.
Weekly: How did you learn to fix up Porsches?
Merrill: I bought a manual. I started working on my first because I couldn’t afford a tuneup. I found them simple and intriguing because they’re air cooled – there’s no computer, radiator, water hoses. It was simple, and fun.
As a farmer I was spending my days in the mud and dust and wind. When I came home, I didn’t want to garden, I wanted to spend time in the garage.
Once you got into racing, did you ever think of going pro?
No. I was too old [27 when he first raced], and not that good.
What’s it like competing against your wife?
Sometimes she would win, sometimes I would win, sometimes we’d both come in dead last. It was never about winning, it was about having fun.
When you’re racing, you’re all in. It’s one of those sports you need to take seriously, there’s no partway way of doing it.
Did you always think you’d go into the family business?
When I was a kid I would always rather be working on the ranch than sitting in school.
Merrill Farms now grows a big range of vegetables on close to 8,000 acres. How has the business changed since your grandfather started it in the 1930s?
Our yields have gone up, our inputs have gone down. We’ve been focused on productivity, that’s really an economic driver.
I grew up in a family business that owned the land and the crop, and then harvested and distributed it to the retailer. Now our company is just focused on the growing [and we sell our crops to packers/shippers].
Some of the old Merrill Packing Co. labels are great – a lettuce head with a face, the San Francisco Ferry Building on the premium label. Was it a monumental shift for you to get out of the packing business and shut down the family label?
In the ’80s there was consolidation with bigger chain stores and fewer buyers. We found ourselves at a disadvantage. Meanwhile, bigger packers like Dole have a global presence and they put a lot into marketing and distribution. We were getting picked off by the big guys, so instead of competing, we allied ourselves with them and became a producer, working with major labels that have the market penetration.
What’s your favorite crop to grow?
They’re all fun. The first crop I learned to grow was head lettuce and spinach and other greens. Lettuce is our main focus, but we’re doing more rotational crops over the years.
What about to eat?
I like them all. We eat a lot of lettuce – iceberg, romaine.
You’ve been farming for 50 years. How do you keep it interesting?
There’s no two years that are exactly the same. It keeps it exciting, it keeps it different and it keeps it fresh. And it keeps you on your toes because Mother Nature can kick your butt. She is the boss. The best fertilizer is still the farmer’s shadow.