By Sibella Kraus
“Farming gets in your heart and your blood,” says Luis Gaytan, smiling while taking a short break in the shade of the G&G Farms hay storage hoop barn. Luis took over ownership of G&G Farms in the Coyote Valley about a year ago, after long-time owner Joe Gonzales passed away. Luis had worked with Joe for almost 20 years and as his foreman for a good part of that time. “But I’m like ‘here’,” Luis holds his hand a few inches from the ground, “just a beginner”.
At 37, Luis is part of a new generation of Coyote Valley farmers, who are bringing a fresh approach to their operations right at the time there seems to be sea change in the expected future for this long-contested urban-edge valley. G&G Farms primarily produces oat hay for animal feed (around 5,000 bales this year) on about 250 acres spread out over six parcels. One of these properties, just west of the valley’s main thoroughfare Santa Teresa, is where G&G’s three hay storage barns are located. Called Fisher’s Bend, this 63-acre property is defined by the bend of the seasonal Fisher Creek at its western perimeter; the band of dark green riparian vegetation provides a vivid contrast to the golden-brown hay fields. Fisher’s Bend is one of two Coyote Valley properties recently purchased by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST).
“Luis is great to work with,” says Kevin Ice, who manages POST’s operations in the Coyote Valley. “He really understands that POST has a bunch of synergistic goals that drove us to invest in the Coyote Valley. We want to protect and uplift the critical landscape linkage between the Diablo and Santa Cruz mountain ranges, and we want to support stable and secure ag operations while providing a suite of co-benefits for the citizens of Santa Clara County, from flood and drinking water protection to world-class public access opportunities on San Jose’s southern edge.”
In partnership with the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority (OSA) and other organizations, POST has a long-term vision and in-process plan to permanently protect the valley’s regionally-significant natural resources by acquiring strategic properties from willing sellers. Kevin uses the term “ecological uplift” as the shorthand goal for POST’s habitat and wildlife permeability investments. He adds, “We are also planning for a sustainable future for agriculture and public access in Coyote Valley in harmony with our linkage vision.”
Luis’s current lease with POST on the Fisher’s Bend property is for one year, a common lease term – often extended year after year – for dry-farmed hay operations. Both Luis and Kevin express hope for a longer-term relationship. This first year is a getting acquainted period, which coincides with POST’s current extensive mapping of the valley’s natural resources, including of the Fisher Creek floodplain, as well as with Luis’s establishing a new direction for G&G Farms.
“I’m trying to start over in my own way,” Luis says earnestly. His new start entails applying for modest loans, mainly for equipment. He is also thinking about what other crops he would like to produce eventually, such as specialty peppers like the prized spicy Manzanillo peppers of Michoacán where his family comes from and which he knows would be a hit in San Jose, where he and his extended family live now. “I’d also like to try nopales; I’ve been reading about how nopales can be very good for people with diabetes.”
Luis got the farming bug from his uncle Javier, who Luis relates worked for Joe Gonzales for over 40 years during the time when G&G was one of the biggest farms in the County, with thousands of acres of hay and alfalfa and over 700 cattle. “I used to help out in the summers, and then I would alternate working in construction with working on the farm, “says Luis. “But then I went for farming; it is risky but so interesting, always something new to learn.” Today, Luis has three full-time employees who stick with him though construction jobs are still a pull. “Farming jobs just can’t compete with $25 an hour construction jobs.”
Luis attributes his steady success and positive attitude to various factors: from working long hours, often 12-hour days, and to having his hand in all parts of the operation, from taking care of the cows (ten currently on a pasture off Palm Avenue, to disking the fields (“I love to see the ground all flat and even”), to tending to the steady stream of customers that come by to buy hay. Most of all, he deeply believes in the power of good relationships with customers and landlords, with friends and family who help out and with fellow farmers. Others agree.
“Everyone knows about Luis. He is more than willing to help other farmers, sometimes at his own expense,” says Gino Torlai. “The first time I met him, about four years ago, I had a breakdown with my hay cutter and he helped me out.” Gino is the co-owner of several enterprises, including Coyote Land & Cattle which recently planted 90 acres of walnuts along Santa Teresa, and Fisher Creek Land & Cattle, which recently planted alfalfa (an irrigated, multi-year hay crop) along Laguna Avenue in a property with a good well formerly leased by G&G. Pete Aeillo of Uesugi Farms, adds, “We are grateful for our relationships with the hay growers, like Luis. It’s a good rotation for our vegetable crops.”
There is a lot of competition for agricultural leases in the Coyote Valley, especially for parcels with good wells. Water supply and longer-term leases go hand in hand with investment in higher value, irrigated crops. The valley is dotted with wells that no longer function, but that could potentially be upgraded, assuming it was worthwhile for either a landowner or lease-holder to invest the requisite $50,000 to $80,000. The Fisher’s Bend property is a case in point; the well there currently ‘blows sand’. Luis hopes that a longer-term lease might allow him to retrofit the water supply on the Fisher Bend property.
Throughout the Coyote Valley (and indeed the entire Santa Clara Valley), investment in wells Investment in wells (and possibly in a recycled water line), orchard crops, and other infrastructure such as packing facilities, requires assurance that the land will stay in agricultural use, at least for the life of the investment. In turn, that kind of land certainty depends on a feasible, coherent vision for the Coyote Valley as a whole as a mosaic of land uses, including conservation, agriculture, and public access.
POST, OSA, the Water District, and the City of San Jose are variously working toward such as vision. This collaborative effort was re-affirmed by the recent passage of San Jose’s Measure T ‘public safety and infrastructure’ bond which includes funds for acquisition of Coyote Valley lands for flood control, drinking water protection, habitat, and other conservation values. Luis is one of the young, hard-working farmers whose own dreams and goals are an important part of creating the multi-functional landscape for nature, food, and people that is being envisioned.
Luis imagines, once he is growing more food crops, having a little farm stand, perhaps where there used to be one, on the corner of Santa Teresa and Palm Avenue. “I love the idea of more families and kids coming out here, eating fresh food and learning about farming.”
About Protect Coyote Valley
The Protect Coyote Valley campaign is led by Committee for Green Foothills and supported by Greenbelt Alliance, Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, SAGE — Sustainable Agriculture Education, and the Land Trust of Santa Clara Valley. It aims to preserve Coyote Valley, San Jose as open space that offers flood-buffering wetlands, an essential wildlife habitat and migratory area, and active farmlands.