Profile: The Spina-Uesugi Farm in Coyote Valley

By Sibella Kraus

Located in the heart of the Coyote Valley, at the intersection of Bailey Road and Santa Teresa, the Spina Farmstand is an iconic farm destination welcoming foodies, birders, bikers, commuters and locals alike to get a taste of life in the country.

Red, ripe and warm from the field, the tomatoes piled up out front, instantly induce an appetite for a delicious tomato, mozzarella, and basil salad.  Displayed alongside the tomatoes, are arrays of colorful, pristine zucchini and summer squash, glistening green, yellow and red bell peppers, and freshly harvested red onions, together evoking the taste memory of a perfect summer ratatouille. Don’t want to cook? Grab some ears of sweet corn so fresh that the silks are still moist, a basket of fragrant strawberries, and a famous Spina Farm zucchini bread, and you can have the sweet taste of summer on your table in minutes.

The displays and product selection are the caring handiwork of Linda Spina, who has managed the farmstand for over 30 years.  “I love what I do; it’s who I am,” says Linda.  She adds many personal touches – adding offerings of seasonal fruit from other local farmers such as Gizdich Ranch, making value-added products like the sweetbreads and jams from local berries, and greeting customers, many of whom have been regulars for decades.  “These days we get lots of cyclists,” she says. “They relax for a moment at the picnic tables while we fill their water bottles, and then they come back later in street clothes as customers.”

The Spina Farm is a family affair with deep roots in Santa Clara County.  John, Linda’s husband, owned and managed the 300-acre farm business in this prime agricultural valley since 1988. Before him, his father had been a Santa Clara Valley farmer and orchardist on lands long-since developed. Now John and Linda’s son, Johnny Michael, is the farmer. Two years ago, the Spinas merged their operation with Uesugi Farms, a diversified vegetable operation with extensive operations in Santa Clara and other Bay Area counties; and like the Spinas, with deep family and farming roots in the area.

“This merger was almost a foregone conclusion; all about two good family operations coming together,” says Pete Aiello, second-generation owner of Uesugi Farms.  “My dad, Joe, and John were friends, and my brother and Johnny went to school together.”   Since the merger, Johnny has worked for Uesugi Farms as a manager both of the Spina Farms property and other Uesugi Farm operations throughout the County. Johnny was also the mastermind behind the renowned and elaborate Spina Farms pumpkin patch, which attracts thousands of families, school groups, and other locals every fall. These days, Johnny grows the pumpkins and his wife Shauna, manages the pumpkin patch.

In September, people driving or biking through Coyote Valley don’t have to wonder what’s growing; the big bright orange orbs scattered in many of the fields and still tethered to their vining foliage, are easily recognizable.  Many people also recognize corn, another Spina Farm staple all summer. But at this time of the year, when the hills are all golden and the fields are various shades of green, other summer crops on the farm are a little harder to identify. The glossy green pepper plants tend to shelter their fruits under the leaves, so they won’t get sunburned. And the fields of lima and fava beans, which Pete grows for harvest as dry beans, don’t look much different from a kind of grain crop.  The fields down Santa Teresa, next door to the Spina Farm, reveal the intricate symmetrical pattern of a young orchard, not yet fruiting. “I love that our neighbors put in walnuts”, says Linda.  In the not-too-distant future, in a project being planned by the County, the valley might sprout signs that let everyone know what’s growing.

Pete is adamant about the importance of educating a range of audiences about agriculture.  In addition to the legion of school field trips the Spina and Uesugi pumpkin patches host every fall, Pete takes on some one-off educational programs personally, “We just hosted some Asian-American senior citizens at our processing facility, “says Pete. “Last fall, we had a group of 5th graders in a red pepper field, harvesting peppers; they had a blast”. He adds, “When I’m not busy farming, I’m busy talking up farming”. Like many other urban-edge farmers, Pete worries that the public lacks basic knowledge about agriculture and doesn’t have a good understanding of what it takes to farm, especially close to an urban area.  Some of Pete’s concerns are in fact regional issues, like jobs, housing, and transportation, but not many people think about how they impact agriculture.

Uesugi Farms employs about 10-20 people in Coyote Valley most of the time and has crews of hundreds of people who come in seasonally for some of the planting, weeding, and especially for the harvesting of peppers and pumpkins. “There is a shortage of labor,” says Pete. “We pay good wages and benefits, but farm workers don’t live near here and don’t want to have to deal with the traffic.”  Pete estimates that the Santa Clara Valley agricultural industry as a whole could use around 1500 units of farmworker housing to help alleviate this problem.  For now, Pete adjusts what he grows to accommodate for limited availability of workers.

It is not just labor that is affected by the traffic congestion along the Highway 101 corridor.  Pete needs to transport crops harvested in the Coyote Valley 30 miles to the south to Highway 25 east of Gilroy, where the Uesugi’s packing and processing plant is located.  He offers a vivid picture of the problem. “At the end of the day, during rush hour, the person driving a load of harvested vegetables to our plant has to push that clutch in and out probably 5,000 times.”  One solution, to build a secondary post-harvest processing facility in the Coyote Valley, could be viable as long as it was certain that the valley was going to remain in agriculture.

Despite the challenges, Pete remains upbeat about farming in the Coyote Valley. “We’re hanging on as hard as we can and we have a great partnership with the Spinas.”  He can imagine that someday, the valley could even support a balance of production agriculture and nature conservation as long as they were planned for distinct areas. Linda also experiences the valley as both a place for farming and a place for recharging. “When I get to the top of the hill,” she says, referring to the ridge that separates urban San Jose from Coyote Valley, “I take a deep breath and say bye, bye San Jose – I’m in the country now.”

About Protect Coyote Valley

The Protect Coyote Valley campaign is led by the Committee for Green Foothills and supported by Greenbelt Alliance, Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, and SAGE — Sustainable Agriculture Education. 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.

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