The drive south from Salinas on U.S. Hwy 101, or simply “101” as Californians call it, travels through a salad bowl of farms that grow a cornucopia of vegetables from the rich, black soil.
Romaine and head lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, kale, spinach, strawberries, mixed vegetables, wine grapes… the list goes on as the miles tick by.
A few miles south of Salinas on the west side of the highway quietly sits an old barn built long before the freeway was even considered.
Mark Pisoni of Pisoni Farms and Pisoni Vineyards says the family barn likely dates back to about 1900. Millions of cars per day now pass the old structure that earlier this year received an artistic facelift, thanks to local mural artist John Cerney, fitting of the valley where John Steinbeck was born.
Rather than simply paint the old wood on the structure, Cerney painted tiles – over 1,000 of them – to craft a mural that stands out from the cauliflower and other row crops planted in rotation between the old highway and new highway near Gonzales.
“I think it’s cool because it’s increasing people’s interest in agriculture,” says Pisoni.
The mural features Mark’s grandfather, the late Edward Pisoni, and Elvezio “Saw” Breschini, the brother of Mark’s grandmother, Jane Breschini Pisoni. According to Mark, the two worked the ranch for over 50 years. At one time “Saw” milked cows in the barn.
The old Farmall tractor in the mural was used by Edward Pisoni and Breschini to cultivate fields of sugar beets and other vegetables.
The artistic jig-saw of sorts is done with one-foot square pieces of scrap wood painted to complete the picture. Pisoni says the scraps were painted first, in Cerney’s shop, then brought to the barn where they were attached with screws.
“I’ve had so many people call me about it,” Pisoni says.
The old barn started as many old barns likely did in the Salinas Valley – as milk barns for small dairy herds people had before the region became the nation’s salad bowl.
Later on in the farming lives of Edward Pisoni and Breschini, the fields would see more vegetables grown – first sugar beets hauled to the nearby Spreckels plant a few miles to the north, and later other vegetables as markets developed into the multi-billion dollar industry vegetable farming is today in the Salinas Valley.
“This is a great spot for growing vegetables,” Pisoni says pointing to the soil around the barn. “I’ve grown romaine, broccoli, cauliflower, celery and asparagus here. It’s really great soil. It is high in organic matter and holds water really well.”
Pisoni is a third-generation farmer of vegetables and wine grapes. While the vegetables are grown for a handful of shippers, the grapes are primarily grown for the family winery in Santa Rosa, where Mark’s younger brother Jeff runs the family operation. Some of their grapes are sold to other wineries.
The grapes are grown in the mountains and on the terraced hillsides along the western edge of the Salinas Valley, also known as the Santa Lucia Highlands Appellation.
The appellation has gained fame for its cool-climate wine grapes. Pisoni grows Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a little Syrah. The grapes are picked in the cool of the night and hauled in refrigerated trailers to Santa Rosa for crushing and bottling at the family winery.
Mark Pisoni fondly recalls growing up as a kid in the Salinas Valley.
“Like any family with farm kids, they put you to work out here,” he said. “We worked in vegetable crops and the vineyard. You learn a good work ethic.”
Next to the old farm house in which Pisoni and his family live sits an old wine cellar. The door creaks and groans as it opens to the underground cavity. Lighting inside reflects sepia tones in the earth and timber to give the structure an antique look.
Pisoni says he likes farming both wine grapes and vegetables.
“It keeps me in two different worlds and more tied in with the different kinds of agriculture we have here,” he says.
Behind the old farm house grows a small family garden that includes corn and a host of vegetables that Pisoni tends with his seven-year-old son, Davis, and five-year-old daughter, Avery Ann.
Pisoni jokes that the rows aren’t exactly straight when compared to the commercial vegetable rows on the other side of the fence, but the kids love it.
He also says his wife Quinn teases him about the hobby he and the children have, given that much of his time is committed to commercial farming.
“You can tell that I love my job,” he says in his optimistic, friendly voice. “It’s fun because it gets the kids into agriculture.”
Nevertheless, farming is business for Pisoni. His office is his pickup, which is full in the cab and the bed with tools of his trade.
All the irrigation wells have flow meters on them to carefully meter water use. Later this year Pisoni will have an acre of solar panels installed that will help offset the cost of running irrigation pumps.
Though farming will always be a business for Pisoni, he suspects the barn will long outlast him as an icon to generations past and hopefully harken the thoughts of generations to come of the days that turned the Salinas Valley into a monument of vegetable production.
“This barn is over 100 years old already, and it’ll probably go for another 100 years.”