Ode to a Way of Life
One family continues a tradition from a time before Contra Costa’s best-selling crop was houses
Along Brentwood’s Walnut Boulevard, billboards planted by the roadside advertise new housing developments. But standing their ground among the crowd of signs are dozens of farm stands that still sell local produce, an echo of the enormous fruit industry that was once a way of life in Contra Costa County.
The fruit stand belonging to Mike Arata III is neither the biggest nor the fanciest of the operations along this stretch. But it’s certainly one of the oldest; some kind of stand has been here for more than 25 years. And it’s one of the dwindling few operated by multigenerational farm families.
Arata’s grandfather, Mike I, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters, came to the Bay Area from Italy with his mother around 1900. The rest of his siblings had already immigrated here and were scattered around the Bay Area; when Mike I arrived, he worked at one brother’s bar in Oakland and then ran a grocery store in San Francisco’s Sunset district. But soon after Mike Arata II and his brother, John, were born, the family bought a ranch on Marsh Creek Road in Brentwood. Having acquired some of the richest agricultural soil in the world, the Arata family made
a good living by growing grapes, tree fruit, and grain on their patch, as well as grazing cattle.
Mike III, born in 1940, grew up working on the farm “afternoons, weekends, school vacations, summers,” he says with a mild smile. “All the time.” He says he did everything that needed to be done—from picking and pruning to running the tractor to delivering fruit to wholesale markets in San Francisco. Brentwood, as small as it was in those days, was another good market for the Aratas.
“We were busy,” he says. “[Today,] people buy a couple peaches to eat, but they don’t buy quantities for pies and canning anymore.”
Back then, the 65-year-old farmer recalls, kids swam in the local irrigation canals—“they were cleaner then,” he adds—and went to the movie house in town. “We had one high school that served four different towns,” he says, “not the three high schools that are here just for Brentwood kids now. Plus, no one had cars. Things were quieter.”
The Marsh Creek ranch eventually went to John’s sons (they now use the land for cattle). Mike II held onto a smaller piece, as did his wife. Mike III bought up parcels of land in the same area and continued selling fruit to wholesalers in the city, as he still does.
Mike III’s wife, Judi, whom he first met at his father’s fruit stand, makes peach pies—30 to 40 a day during the summer—to sell both at Arata’s fruit stand and at stands belonging to some neighboring farms. Mike’s oldest son, 25-year-old Phillip, represents the fourth generation of Aratas to farm in this region, and he wants to work the farm as long as he can. But he recognizes that he probably won’t be able to support a family doing so.
“We’re not some big corporate farm that can give everyone in the family a salary,” he says pragmatically. For now, Phillip is training to be a firefighter, which will give him time to work the farm, too.
Although the Aratas have eschewed going organic, Phillip and a cousin have taken advantage of the trend toward “community supported agriculture,” an arrangement through which local produce is delivered to consumers by the farmers themselves. “We saw the big demand for this,” he says, “so now we’re putting together 20-pound boxes of our produce, supplying a recipe sheet, and making deliveries once a week. People seem to like it.”
Neither Phillip nor his father expects to farm here forever, though. “It’s nice to have a small family farm,” says Mike. “But most farmers need outside income.” He figures he’ll eventually sell his land to fund his retirement. “Everyone says it’s going to be a city from here to Tracy sometime soon,” he says. “I have to say I believe it.”