It is impossible to describe the Half Moon Bay Coastside without the mention of farming. Swaths of verdant fields have informed the region’s culture and beauty since coastal dairies cropped up in the mid-1800s and Italian immigrants flocked to the fields in the early 20th century.
Since then, Coastside farms have fed the nation with their tender artichokes, famed Brussels sprouts, and fresh beans. Food trends and businesses have shifted over the years—from the frozen food manufacturers that proliferated in the 1950s to today’s farmers' markets that bustle with Bay Area foodies—yet a strong connection to the land and a respect for its stewards remain a constant in the pastoral, seaside community.
La Dolce Vita
What makes the Coastside so conducive for agriculture? Thank the mineral-rich sea air and cool, moderate climate that provide the ideal growing conditions for a variety of crops including beans, pumpkins, and artichokes. One of the first enterprising individuals to take advantage of these favorable environs was Dante Dianda whose successful artichoke farm earned him the title, The Artichoke King. Dianda was one of many Italian immigrants that fled Italy for the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Drawn to a coastal landscape that reflected their homeland, as well as a burgeoning community of relatives and compatriots, these Italian immigrants began sowing the seeds of modern Coastside farms.
Giorgio Lea immigrated from Italy in 1922, and, together with his wife who joined him a few years later, found work on a local farm—he as a laborer and she as a cook for farm workers. Eventually, the Leas started their own commercial vegetable farm which included a homestead filled with gardens and livestock.
“That’s how they fed themselves,” says Giorgio‘s grandson, David Lea, who remembers spending time on the farm as a young boy. “They only went to the store once a month because milk and bread were delivered, and they made everything else by hand.” Today, David farms the land first settled by his grandparents— now referred to as Cabrillo Farms Agriculture—along with his 94-year-old father Ed who was born and raised on the family farm. David is one of numerous third-generation descendants of Coastside Italian immigrants who maintain the farming legacy and tight-knit community that began with their grandparents.
“We’re all great friends,” says Iacopi Farms’ Mike Iacopi whose grandfather Michael immigrated to the Coastside in 1939. “We help each other out, gather for lunch, and get together for dinners at each other’s homes.”
Eat Your Brussels Sprouts
Another member of that community is John Giusti whose grandfather Guido founded Giusti Farms in 1949. Guido immigrated from Italy and found his way to the Coastside after the heat of central California, where his sister had settled, chased him west. From the beginning, a core crop of Giusti Farms has been the Brussels sprout. It’s a tough crop to grow—it attracts insects, has a lengthy growing period—but much like Guido Giusti, it doesn’t do well in the heat. Thriving in cool climates, Brussels sprouts have become a Coastside staple.
Likely first planted commercially by Italian immigrants, Coastside Brussels sprouts gained popularity nationwide in the 1950s, and spurred frozen food companies to flock to the coast in Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. Yet, if your childhood memories of these mini cabbages are less than fond, you’re not alone.
“I feel like we lost a whole generation of Baby Boomers who were exposed to bitter varieties that were boiled to death,” says Giusti who explains that Brussels sprouts were stronger tasting in the 1960s and 1970s.
“By the 1980s, eighty percent of sprouts were going to frozen or canned food processors, but the taste wasn’t there” says David Lea who maintains 155 acres of Brussels sprouts. “Breeders took notice and started breeding out the bitterness.” Today, the frozen food companies have long since shuttered, but Brussels sprouts are more popular than ever, popping up on trendy restaurant menus nationwide thanks to milder varieties sourced fresh from local farmers markets.
“The buy local trend was a big shift that boosted our sales,” says Giusti whose family staffs weekly farmers markets, and notes that Brussels sprouts sales have skyrocketed in the last ten years.
“You can’t get a better Brussels sprout than on the Coastside,” says Louis Iacopi who founded Iacopi Farms in 1962 and, today, runs it alongside his son Mike. Yet, the Iacopis have become local celebs among Bay Area chefs for another crop: fresh and dried beans. “My dad loved beans, and we got started when he brought over a handful from Italy”, says Louis. How did Iacopi Farms beans become so sought after? “It’s the Coastside climate,” says Mike Iacopi. “They grow slower in a cool climate, absorbing more moisture from the air, and flavor from the salt in the soil.” Mike explains that most beans are grown in the Central Valley where extreme heat dries them out, and he likens their taste to that of a certain hearty, brown paper stock. “Ours stay tender and juicy,” he says proudly.
Tough Road to Hoe
In addition to superstar beans, the Iacopis also have what is likely the most unique patch of farmland on the Coastside, situated between the runways of the Half Moon Bay airport. Yet, dodging small aircraft pales to other challenges they encounter. While farming was never a breezy occupation, today’s local farmers face a myriad of challenges including foreign markets, shifting consumer trends, and rising land and labor costs. Through much of the 20th century, the Coastside was an international source for flowers, but the local market dwindled not just because carnations and dry straw flowers went out of vogue, but also because it became cheaper to produce them in countries with less expensive labor. Family-owned Oku Nursery has had to roll with the punches since 1902, starting with carnations and switching to roses in the 1980s. Today, the overwhelming majority of roses are grown in South America. As a result, the Okus pulled their last rose plant in 2010, and have since focused on exotic lilies, daisies, and lettuces grown hydroponically, or without soil.
Farmers must also find a balance between traditional practices and environmental concerns. Preying mountain lions pose expensive threats to cattle ranchers, and farmers who have enjoyed the benefits of local streams must now yield to coho salmon populations. Plus, for many legacy farmers such as the Leas, Giustis, and Iacopis, there’s the question of whether the next generation is willing to carry on the family business given the high-paying tech jobs beckoning from nearby Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
What’s the current mood amidst these challenges?
“I’m always optimistic,” says B.J. Burns, owner of Bianchi Flowers and the president of the San Mateo Farm Bureau which assists local ranchers and farmers. Burns was a senior in high school when he went to work for his father-in-law’s farm in the 1960s. “I can remember the many dairies, and old timers working in the hills in oats, barley, and flax. There was a lot of enthusiasm.”
The Future of Coastside Farming
The enthusiasm is still here. Farms and ranches continue to crop up along the coast, many started by a new generation that didn’t stand to inherit an existing farm. Erik Markegard traces his cattle ranching roots back six generations—all the way to Norway—yet, it wasn’t until he and his wife Doniga founded Markegard Family Grass Fed in 2005 that his family oversaw a Coastside ranch of their own. Today, they raise cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens the old-fashioned way: on the pasture with heritage breeds that our grandparents ate before newfangled varieties were engineered for faster production. The Markegards also opted to forgo wholesale, and, instead, sell direct to customers at farmers markets and via their website.
Instrumental to the Markegard’s Cloverdale Ranch in Pescadero was support from the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) whose Farmland Futures Initiative helps protect land for agricultural use, and invests in workshops and infrastructure improvements such as reservoirs, barns, and housing for farm workers. POST has sold and leased land to the Markegard, Guisti, Iacopi, and Lea families, among others.
“Farms are an essential part of the landscape, economy, and community on the Coastside,” says Curt Riffle, POST’s Vice President of Land. “We want to ensure that farm owners and operators are able to continue their important work for years to come.”
Then there’s the hot topic of cannabis. Advocate Nate Rey says it’s a potential lifeline for farmers after California passed Proposition 64, and the County of San Mateo approved the cultivation of cannabis in greenhouses on existing farms. The Oku family is considering it. For many years, Rey served as general manager of Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, and hopes to see the same artisanship and branding employed by craft beer applied to marijuana. Yet, it represents a cultural shift that the community is still debating.
“We’re still here,” says John Giusti. “I imagine in twenty years, how we farm might look different, but we’ll still be growing our Brussels sprouts.”