Mission Valley's last dairyman

A farewell to farms

At the beginning of the wiping out of Mission Valley period, the clutter and ugliness was at its worst.
  • At the beginning of the wiping out of Mission Valley period, the clutter and ugliness was at its worst.
  • Image by Rick Geary

So, what is a cow? She is only the largest animal in the American economy. She gives us milk and cheese, steak, prime rib, hamburger and byproducts. But like most animals, she hardly exists in the minds, let alone the neighborhoods, of those who associate milk not with cows, but just with bottles and cartons. Nor is it a likely tourist who, standing on the balcony of his $57.50 per day room, will want to mingle the tingle of his margarita with the smell of cows.

This type of wholly unteleological and ungrateful attitude toward the most gentle and most generous of barnyard animals has driven her, as well as her barnyard, out of Mission Valley. She has been shipped with mean success to El Cajon, Escondido, Lakeside, and Alpine. But even there she is an embarrassment to her owners, as the land she needs to graze on claims so much in taxes. It seems some quiet kind of conspiracy is getting all the cows together in San Joaquin Valley, along with all the other farmyard types of things, to be scientifically born, raised, milked, and otherwise processed into what we Americans think of as beef and dairy products rather than animals. The cow’s milk is then shipped in oil tanker-like trucks from the great central udder to all of California. The entire process does not affect the quality of the milk, but it does force the small dairy farmer toward extinction.

Fragments of the conversation of P. Ferrari, the Last Dairyman .... “It is unconstitutional, yeah, the way they tax the land; they should tax it for grazing purposes, if my farm has been here for sixty years. I was born in that house right there, went to school with all these people, dairy farmers, truck farmers—lots of oriental truck farmers. Oh, they’re all gone now. Bulldozed out by the freeway in ’49 and then the stadium. Yeah, my father bought this land in 1896 from some Greek. My mother used to take the milk into town in a horse and buggy. Now you can’t even sell milk unless you belong to the Pool. It’s unconstitutional - they’re trying to break it up now. Yeah, I don’t dairy any more. I bought a couple of rundown buildings in El Cajon, fixed them up. I’m a landlord. Oh, this used to be beautiful grazing land. Real good for cows. You know, when I sold my cows I got more for the shipping rights for the milk than for the cows. That's unconstitutional. See there where the trees are (close to the stadium)? That used to be a beautiful lake. I leased that land for grazing land from the city. But now all that land fill from the construction has filled it up. No, you can’t dairy around here any more.’’

It used to be, you would drive through Mission Valley and see the Mission Valley Country Club and dairies everywhere else. Then came a hotel, and some dairies disappeared. Then more hotels, and we had “Hotel Circle.’’ Then May Company, or Mission Valley Shopping center. Then the stadium and Fashion Valley, and suddenly, financial centers, apartment complexes; in short, the San Diego equivalent of Wilshire Blvd.

Where the big brassy buildings are, a couple of houses and at least one farm still sit, each behind its own For Sale sign. The line of realtors’ metal signs is continuous where land and lawns and fields still exist, each proudly proclaiming its suitability for leasing purposes. The old valley just ain’t what it used to be. It’s no longer a question of how you’re going to get them back on the farm after they’ve seen the big city. Now, if they just sit on the farm long enough, the city will come to them.

It is quite conceivable that a businessman can fly into San Diego and participate in a week of solid activities without once moving out of Mission Valley. Hotel, restaurant, convention center, business complexes, and a round of golf by day; and by night, the massage parlors come, on out-calls, to him. Those who want to pick up a dash of vanishing local color can drive down the freeway a bit to where the farm still is, then turn around and hit Old Town, where the relics of a more gracious past are collected in a grand enough manner for Wild Bill Hickok and the Indians, after the West was won.

It used to be, back when I was a small child, about twenty years ago, that the inhabitants of Mission Hills could look out over the canyons across the green valley to the magnificently stark mesa which we now call Clairemont. By the time my generation reached puberty, those naturophiles among us were beginning to bite our lips and stamp our feet, as more and more buildings and roads pushed the bushes and the grasses into smaller and smaller percentages of our vista. But those were the days when “tourist” was the worst epithet a surfing, woody-driving, native San Diego adolescent could hurl; and those days seem largely gone.

For one thing, many of us are beginning to feel a kind of guilt perhaps for feeling so entitled to claim a large portion of the land that is steadily filling up with more people and their various needs to make a living. Like Ferrari and his friends who grew up as truck farmers and dairymen in the farmland outside San Diego, which is now greater and greater San Diego, we feel that any lawyer who might attempt to help us keep the land would have to be a little “crooked,” for attempting to fight City Hall and its zoning policies. Even though the old residents aren’t happy with what they are left with or sent to-even though they feel a bit painfully bruised by the bulldozers which, in less time than it takes a calf to become a heifer, transformed their memories of green fields into visions cluttered with the paraphernalia of slick Southern California singles-style living-they nonetheless accept it as the way things are.

WHAT is confusing to people of my own generation is that the memories of what I used to call “paradise” before I was ten - the immense valley floating under salmon fog coming in from sea at dawn, walled on one side by a barren mesa and on the other by Spanish Colonial elegance fitted perfectly within bounteous vegetation - are not as painfully erased today as they were, say, ten years ago.

It seems that at the beginning of the wiping out of Mission Valley period, the clutter and ugliness was at its worst - billboards and beer cans and the least attractive architecture Southern California had to offer. But since you can’t stop progress, maybe you can program it a bit; and it seems that Mission Valley, for the most part, is being programmed fairly well these days, with various newly erected architectural efforts well worth the looking at. Some diehards who would prefer to gaze at cows might object, but most old-timers will tell you than anyone not blessed with a big hunk of Pollyanna spirit will not fare too well in This Ever Changing World We Live In.

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