SAN MARTIN — As fourth-generation men of the earth, the Bonino brothers know their picked profession isn’t for everyone.
Their century-old LJB Farms has been around since long before the term “Silicon Valley” was coined, but it’s now an outlier in Santa Clara County, a throwback to days when it was known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight.They’ve seen times change and they’ve changed with them. Their dad, Louie, saw fruit and nut orchards turn to rows of vegetables, and then those rows turn to homes as farmers found it impossible to turn a profit with a mere 20 acres.
“There was a time when that was enough to be able to take care of the farm and the family,” said the Bonino’s 75-year-old patriarch, whose grandfather set up shop on the valley floor in 1917. “But then it wasn’t, and it probably started back in the ‘80s, and most of them have left.”
LJB Farms, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is far from alone. According to Santa Clara County’s agricultural commissioner Joseph Deviney, there are more than 1,000 farms of varying size still spread throughout Santa Clara County, which has more farmland than any of the other urban counties in the Bay Area.
According to recently released crop reports, the county’s production grew 11 percent in 2016 to more than $310 million dollars of agricultural products, with longtime king crops of nursery plants, mushrooms and bell peppers. San Mateo County produced about $135 million, slightly up from last year; Alameda County was down about 4 percent to $48 million and Contra Costa saw a 7 percent rise to $128 million in 2015, the latest data available.
While that pales in comparison to the grape empires of the North Bay, the fertile Central Valley to the east and the coastal farms to the south, it’s still significant. And Deviney said the total value goes well beyond the production value of crops: A 2014 report found that if indirect and induced values — irrigation supplies bought by farms, food bought by their workers, agritourism at wineries and events like the Gilroy Garlic Festival — are included, agriculture’s economic contribution totalled $832 million.
But the threat to farmland is real: After seeing a 45 percent drop in agricultural land since 1980, the county is currently working with the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority on a plan to preserve and promote what’s left of an industry that’s been evolving.
“Our farmers are very sophisticated. It’s not some guy in overalls digging around in the ground,” Deviney said. “Fields are laser-leveled so water doesn’t go one way or the other. The plantings are done with very specialized equipment that places them exactly three or four inches apart. There’s sub-surface irrigation that delivers water precisely to the root.”
The result, Deviney said, is more yield per acre and less water use per acre. Three times as many peppers with less overhead. And that’s why the product value per acre, which hovered at under $5,000 until beginning a climb in the early 1990s, is now over $11,000.
Still, that’s a far cry from the $100,000 to $200,000 price per acre that Deviney said some parcels could fetch from developers. Threatened conversion of agricultural land and open space is a constant — in the past 18 months a 30-acre swath in Coyote Valley destined to become a huge warehouse operation was preserved when the Peninsula Open Space Trust bought the land for $5.8 million. A sports and entertainment complex on over 200 acres near Morgan Hill derailed when the local land agency didn’t allow its annexation by the city. A master development of 4,000 homes north of Gilroy was shelved after public outcry — for now. Green space advocates say 55 percent of the remaining 20,000 acres of agricultural is at risk of development.
And that’s why Andrea Mackenzie of the open space authority said it’s critical to develop the Agricultural Action Plan, which will be brought to the Board of Supervisors in December before it is sent to state officials.
It’s “the beginning of long public discussion about what will work best,” Mackenzie said, and that includes raising the profile of the remaining farmers in Silicon Valley.
“There’s a disconnect between the hardworking farmers and ranchers in South County who produce, and the consumers in the northern part of the county who don’t know anything about them,” she said.
“Go up to Sonoma County. There are a lot of small growers with amazing niche crops that feed the local economy and people love it — they love the produce, the cheese, the milk. And they’ll protect it and support it — they’ll put their money where their mouth is at the ballot box.”
For those in the know, LJB Farms gets that kind of love. The farm does most of its business through its store on Fitzgerald Avenue, where vegetable fans come for the freshly plucked green goods. It’s not a huge operation, employing between 75 to 100 workers to farm about 650 acres of mostly leased land this year. On any given day, customers from around the valley will come by to give a passing pat to Dozer, an amiable English lab that serves as the farm’s mascot, and leave with bags full of favorites: Corn, tomatoes, squash and garlic.
“I wouldn’t come down here if it wasn’t great stuff,” said Don Herd of San Jose, who was loading his car with 150 pounds of beefsteak tomatoes for an annual family canning session. “I love getting down here for the ambience. I grew up on a farm in Kansas. But you can’t make a living on a farm.”
The farm’s core currently consists of Louie and his wife, Judy, and their sons Brent and Russ. Whether LJB will enter a fifth family generation is unclear — so far, an heir apparent to the labors of love required by a farm has not emerged.
“I never had any other idea than to be a farmer,” said Russ Bonini, 47. “It’s a tough one to understand — what we do is not work, it’s a way of life. And you have to deal with one of the most unpredictable forces out there, and that’s Mother Nature.”
His oldest son is studying medicine. “He wants to print body parts with a 3-D printer,” Bonini said.
His other son is looking at a career as a fireman. “He wants to help people,” he said. “Will anyone take it over after us? Shoot, I don’t know. That’s a tough one. Kind of like trying to predict the weather.”