Trousers rolled, the elderly man walked barefoot through the loose, loamy soil of his garden, poking zucchinis and fat clusters of tomatoes with his cane.
“See these,” he said, pulling several stubby young carrots from a lacy thicket of green. “Lindora carrots. These are ready. I pull them out and then more little ones come. It’s amazing what a little patch of ground will do for you.”
Broad-brimmed straw hat shading his weathered face, Pete Ferrari looks every inch the farmer. But his “patch of ground"--about an acre of vegetable beds, fruit trees, sheds and the two-story white clapboard home that Monica and Pete Ferrari built for their family in 1937--is in an unusual place: sandwiched between two office buildings on busy Camino del Rio South in Mission Valley.
The garden’s northern border is a parking lot. Beyond that is eight-lane Interstate 8 and --providing strange counterpoint to Ferrari’s faded gray scarecrow and neatly staked rows of beans--the Commonwealth Bank Building, a 13-story high-rise of mirrored glass.
In the fast-growing commercial center that is Mission Valley, Pete Ferrari’s garden is an anachronism.
It is also a small oasis from the urban center around him. At least Ferrari--one of the original 25 Mission Valley dairy farmers and perhaps the last farmer working in Mission Valley--still thinks of it that way.
“See, maybe I should be playing golf, but I just like to do this,” the 70-year-old gardener said as he worked in his vegetable beds one morning last week.
“You know they offer me big money for this land, but I like it here. I like it here better than ever. I got security--a cyclone fence all around. And nobody comes. The office workers--they come next door at 8:30 and they leave at 5. And, sure, I don’t like the freeway, but what are you going to do? People pay for the noise at the beach. It’s the same noise to me.”
As he sat on an old milk crate and talked, Ferrari made it clear he would rather discuss gardening than intrusions like the freeway or city politics.
Last month, when the San Diego City Council debated the future of Mission Valley--whether to approve a plan for increased development or call a moratorium on building--Ferrari said he liked Mayor Roger Hedgecock’s call for a moratorium.
Still, “I’m not a politician,” Ferrari said. He didn’t join other property owners, members of
the Mission Valley Unified Planning Committee, who wanted more building in the valley. And after the plan was approved on June 26, Ferrari said he was glad he had stayed away.
For Ferrari, the real battle over developing the valley ended in 1968, the year the California Department of Transportation widened the freeway and condemned the land on which his milking barn stood.
When Ferrari tried to get a permit to move the barn north of the freeway, the city wouldn’t approve it. “They said, ‘We want that barn out of there.’ They said they smelled it from the stadium,” he said.
Although he hunted for grazing land from San Diego County to Bakersfield, Ferrari finally sold his 550 head of Holstein cattle and used the money to buy industrial land in El Cajon.
The sale, though painful, was a good one. “Those old cows were sacred. I got some gold out there,” Ferrari said. The sale of his cows and later--parcel by parcel--most of his family’s 60-acre dairy farm, has made Ferrari a millionaire.
Still, Ferrari misses the dairy business. “I went crazy when the cows were gone,” he said. Even now, he wakes most mornings at 3:30, the time he used to milk the cows.
Ferrari’s roots were in that dairy farm. His father, Louis, who immigrated from Italy in 1896, bought a 60-acre truck farm along the river and in 1914 made it a dairy farm. A 1919 photograph of the dairy shows the first barn, several horse barns and 30 cows.
Ferrari built it into a much larger operation. A 1965 photograph shows a big hay barn north of the freeway, and on the freeway’s south side, a dairy barn and feed lots for the almost 600 Holsteins.
“For milking, the cows came out an underpass to the dairy barn to the south,” Ferrari said. (There are still three tunnels--one for cattle, one for horses, one for pedestrians-- under the freeway, if you know where to look, he said.)
Ferrari was proud of the business. “I was the biggest dairy man in San Diego in World War II--600 gallons a day,” he said. A member of the Challenge Butter Assn. Cooperative, the dairy each year received an Award of Merit for good milk production. And Ferrari remembers one special cow, Betty, who produced 14 gallons of milk a day; his two children were raised on her milk.
In the heyday of the dairies, from the 1930s to the 1950s, all of Mission Valley was covered with farms. “They were beautiful dairy farms--oh man, green,” Ferrari said. “It was the best place to dairy, so close to the ocean. The cows did well.”
Now, the freeway cuts through “the best farmland in the country,” and Mission Valley is filled with condominiums and shopping centers. Ferrari doesn’t like the change.
“Look at it down there,” he said, motioning to the gleaming high-rise Commonwealth Bank Building.
“Isn’t it ugly? There were beautiful cows there. Even the (Canada) geese don’t like this building. They break the glass out every now and then . . . And when it rains and there’s flooding, I’ve seen water where that building is eight feet deep. Some day, some day we’ll see trouble.”
Trouble or not, Ferrari and his wife plan to stay here the rest of their lives. Two children, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren live nearby. Every winter, he and his wife travel--to Las Vegas and Europe. And every summer, he stays home and gardens.
Ferrari denies that what he does now could be termed farming. “I’m not doing no farming. I’ve just got a little garden here,” he said.
Though some of his plants--the 10-foot high Blue Lake beans for instance--have produced 400 pounds of vegetables this season, the garden is a small-scale version of the productive truck farm his family used to tend. But for now, it is plenty.
“I’m going to keep this,” he vowed. “I’d have kept more (of the farmland he sold off) if I hadn’t had a heart attack in 1980.”
But after an hour of talk, Ferrari has tired of Mission Valley history. He’d rather discuss his vegetables--his beans, for instance, the Blue Lake beans.
“Look at the flowers coming again. That’s a real delicious bean,” he said. He pulled several long beans off the stalk and urged a visitor to take a bite, to taste their sweetness. “That’s a helluva lot of beans.”
Ferrari sighed and smiled. “Oh Jesus, this stuff never quits. It just keeps producing.”