LJB: The Hundred-Year Farm
Back in the summer of ’75, when kids were setting up lemonade stands down the way, Brent Bonino, 3, and his big brother Russ, 5, sold pears. With a couple of cousins, they’d pick the fruit from their daddy’s orchard and set up on the lawn to sell pears to passersby and neighbors.
The boys did pretty well with pears. So, when people asked for tomatoes and maybe some corn, they got their dad to plant some and, in time, their little business grew to a bona fide farm stand. But the one thing they knew growing up—working the 650 acres farmed by their father, his father before him and his father first—was that farming was not in their future.
Together the Bonino brothers went off to Cal Poly and together they graduated—Brent in agricultural business with a concentration in policy, and Russ with a degree in agricultural engineering and technology. And then they came home to San Martin after all, to run LJB Farms—named for their parents, Louie and Judy Bonino.
“I had no desire to go into farming,” says Brent. “In college, I wanted to do anything else. Growing up, I found it too difficult a lifestyle for very little return. Too many unpredictable forces—Mother
Nature, the price of fuel—make it an unstable business. For how hard we worked, I thought we should have stability and a comfortable lifestyle.”
Sometimes monetary comfort, says Russ, isn’t what life’s all about. “Working a farm creates a different kind of comfort. It’s not just a job; what we do is a way of life. It’s who we are and how we live, and it’s a completely different landscape than when my father or his father began farming.”
The Bonino brothers’ great-grandfather came to California in 1915 and bought the family’s first ranch two years later, in San Martin. He had emigrated from Italy to Illinois and then moved to Utah, where he worked the mines and where his son, the brothers’ grandfather, was born in 1908. Their great-grandfather came to San Martin on the train, worked in a tannery in Redwood City and bought land in a climate similar to his homeland just north of Torino, Italy.
“At that time, my grandfather had vineyards,” says Louie. “This whole area was pretty much grapes. Then Prohibition came, and they had all these grapes they couldn’t use, so they started planting plums, walnuts, pears and cherry trees. They always had a small vineyard, all wine grapes, which they sold to San Francisco families to make wine.”
Eventually, the family developed their yield to include produce that thrives in this climate: peppers, tomatoes, onions, apples, corn, garlic and various flowers for seeds, among other crops.
Louie’s father was 11 when the family moved to San Martin. As soon as he got out of grammar school, he bought a tractor and a spray rig. His high school education came from working the land.
“My dad, Tony Bonino, was the one who really built this farm. He was the first guy in the valley to have a Caterpillar,” Louie says. “He was a real intelligent, really aggressive man, willing to take chances. God only knows what that man could have done, had he gone to school. He was a very successful man in his own right.”
Louie, like his sons, grew up on the farm in San Martin. Also like his sons, he didn’t want to be a farmer. He went off to study electronics at San Jose State, and then joined the military. Yet, just like his sons, once he came home, he started farming.
“Farming is a lifestyle,” says Louie, “but it has changed considerably over the years. We’ve altered our ways due to advancements in technology with drip irrigation and developments in fertilizer. Our yields have gotten way better because of how we work the ground and raise these crops. We have better seed now; we never had hybrid varieties like we have today, like all those different colors of peppers. When I started farming, if we got 30 tons to the acre, we had a crop. Now we get 66 tons to the acre.”
The difference, says Louie, is in the feeding and watering. Both the fertilizer and water come through a drip irrigation system every five days. “They’re actually getting less water,” he says, “but the plants never suffer. It’s like intravenous feeding; it’s always there if you need it.”
What hasn’t changed is the Boninos’ practice of letting their produce come to a natural fruition, and selling their products fresh off the harvest.
“We don’t force-ripen or freeze our produce,” says Louie. “It ripens on its own. Everything we do is natural. A lot of produce you find in the store was picked just as it was starting to turn color. Then they gas it, and the color deepens, but it has no flavor because it didn’t ripen on the vine. We pick produce and that day or the next day it’s on the shelf in the old barn. We pick it the day we ship it or sell it.”
Their practice, says Russ, is to present produce as it would come from the garden.
Last summer, patrons parking at the LJB Farm Stand saw acres of corn high on the stalk, with sunflowers standing like sentinels among them. The berries were fresh and plentiful in the barn, and people were buying up peppers and plums. Upon their return come October, customers witnessed the shift in seasons. The corn, now harvested, was stacked high in the bin where customers were shucking husks. Nearby, sunflowers were beckoning from buckets and hay bales framed piles and piles of pumpkins—pale pink Porcelain Dolls, Cinderellas, Carnivals, Jack-o-Lanterns, Full Moons and more. At the counter was a decanter of fresh-pressed apple juice.
“I always buy my pumpkins here,” says Gilroy resident Danielle Smart, whose pallet was piled high with pumpkins. “These pumpkins are mine. I use them for fall décor inside or on the porch. My kids are not allowed to touch them. We come back so they can pick out theirs for carving.”
Don’t snap the stem; it’s part of the character of the pumpkin, says Brent, speaking to customers as if each is an old friend. They probably are.
The Bonino family, says Danielle, has kids in the local schools, to which they always donate to the harvest festivals and other events, year ‘round. “They’re an important part of our community.”
This year, the Boninos will celebrate 100 years of what Steinbeck called “living off the fat of the land.”
“None of us thought we’d do this forever,” says Louie, “but it’s in our blood. We like our life and the people of this community. If you enjoy something, it makes life worthwhile. You can make all the money in the world, but if you don’t like what you do, it’s no good.”
LJB Farms | 585 Fitzgerald Ave. | San Martin | 408.842.9755