When Farm Day rolls around Saturday, residents of the Santa Maria Valley will be able to take a free self-guided tour of local farms to see how their vegetables, fruits and berries are grown, beef cattle are raised and fine wine is made.
They can also visit other agriculture-related businesses that pack and ship fruit and vegetables, sell from farm stands, test produce and compost agricultural waste into nutrient-rich mulch.
One of the 15 sites participating in Farm Day plans to provide visitors with a look at how fresh vegetables wind up on their plates in a journey through the company’s “seed to sale” production process.
Family-owned Bonipak Produce Inc. has been in operation since 1932 when Milo Ferini and Dominick Ardantz became partners in a farming operation that now extends to second and third generations.
“I think they started with sugar beets on a small farm near Guadalupe,” said Derek Eager, marketing manager for Bonipak, adding the company has since dropped beets but expanded into other produce.
Eager quickly runs through the list of cauliflower, broccoli, celery, lettuce, cabbage, romaine hearts, spinach, cilantro, parsley and more.
The company also has a side business in berries —blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.
But vegetables are the primary focus for Bonipak, and the company does everything from tilling the soil, planting the seeds, transplanting sprouts and harvesting the crops to preparing, packaging and shipping them across the United States.
That makes the sprawling operation at 1850 W. Stowell Road a busy place, as loads of vegetables are brought in from surrounding fields, processed, stored in the cooler and loaded aboard refrigerated big-rigs that rumble in empty and growl back out filled with Bonipak produce.
“We are excited about the fact that we could invite our community out to see what we do,” Eager said. “Although we’ve been here almost 90 years, there are still a lot of people who don’t know we’re here.”
He said Farm Day will be a chance to educate people on the importance of agriculture, as they’ll get to see sustainable soil practices, soil testing and the planting process.
They’ll hear about harvesting and integrated pest management, tour the cooler, learn about shipping and see the semitrucks, tractors and other farm equipment, Eager said.
“I think people will be impressed with the work that goes into it,” he said.
High school students who operate The Patch will be there with pumpkins, activities for children will be offered and visitors can pick up samples of produce to take home.
“There’s something [here] for everyone,” said Mary Maranville, a farmworker’s daughter and founder and chief executive officer of Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture, or SEEAG, which is sponsoring the third annual Farm Day in Santa Maria.
But beyond vegetables, the company has another focus the owners consider important.
“Employees — they are the heart of the company,” explained Christine Reade, who modestly describes herself as “just the wife” of Craig Reade, one of the eight owners. “They’re what makes it work.”
Reade said the owners don’t like taking the spotlight and prefer that it be turned on the hundreds of people who work for them.
“From the tractor driver who discs the field before planting to the truck driver who delivers across the U.S., if they all don’t work well together, you’re not going to have a successful company,” Reade said.
She offered up her husband’s favorite quote: “We’re in the people business. We just happen to grow vegetables.”
Eager said a lot of employees have been with the company for 30 years.
“It’s important that people enjoy where they work,” he said. “It’s just nice we grow healthy vegetables.”
Farm Day has even allowed many employees to show their children what they do.
“One of the things I love, which I said after the first Farm Day, was that employees got to bring their families, and they got to see where [their parents] worked,” Maranville said.