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Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Profiles: Joseph Balistreri of D’Aquisto Farms Keeps the Family Farm & His Family’s Italian American Heritage Alive

 Down on the Farm, Italian Style

Joseph Balistreri of D’Aquisto Farms Keeps the Family Farm & His Family’s Italian American Heritage Alive

by Christopher Forte



According to the American Farmland Trust (AFT), California loses 50,000 acres of farmland annually, and is facing a “crossroads” as the housing supply crisis accelerates development and as the State, like the rest of the world, faces Climate Change. AFT, like many others, believe that farmland is necessary for the security of the nation’s food supply and can be used as a way to fight Climate Change.


At the same time, the majority of the American-born descendants of Italian immigrants have shown little interest in their cultural heritage because they are so well integrated into American culture and life. It is not that they hate or are ashamed of their Italian heritage, it is just that it never really occurred to them because many have just always considered themselves plain old American. And while it is only right that one does become a part of the nation they choose to live in or are born in, this does not mean one needs to totally give up their history and culture. Indeed, cultural diversity is one of America’s strengths. I for one would find it boring if all we had to choose to eat, as an example, was just Hamburgers and Hotdogs. And maybe Buffalo Wings. And while I do enjoy those, I also need my tacos and pizza!


There is good news, however. According to the San Diego County Farm Bureau, “More than 3 million people live in San Diego County, and more than 5,000 farmers call it home and make their living on 250,000 acres.” The Farm Bureau also states that San Diego County is the “19th largest farm economy among more than 3000 counties” in the US and has “more small farms (less than 10 acres) than any other county.” And according to Joseph Balistreri of D’Aquisto Farms, “the demand for locally grown agricultural products is ever increasing as consumers want to support local food systems and want to develop relationships with the people who grow their food.”


Speaking of Joseph Balistreri of D’Aquisto Farms, there is yet more good news; there are farmers and many others like Mr. Balistreri in Cailfornia and throughout the United States that are trying to keep their Italian heritage alive and pass it on to the next generation. In the following interview we discover how Joseph Balistreri does this and how his Italian American heritage intersects with and inspires his small-scale family farming.


How did you get into farming? Why did you do so?

I’ve always had a love for rural life and dreamed of being a farmer from my earliest years as a child. My grandfather or Nono as we called him, had a large garden in his backyard in Claremont. Watching him grow things like tomatoes, zucchini, basil and eggplant was my earliest inspiration. My dad was always very supportive of my passion early on. We would take car rides through the outskirts of San Diego County to see the all the fields planted. Ultimately, he set me up with a 10×24 garden in our backyard in Scripps Ranch when I was about 10 years old. When I became a teenager, I abandoned the idea of ever being a farmer. It seemed too farfetched and an unlikely dream to have. I got into music and became a pro Radio and club Dj in the San Diego music circuit and ultimately landed on XHTZ “Jammin” Z90 in 2004 after years of honing my craft in high school. I was 24 years old. By the time 30 came around and had my first and only child out of wedlock I had completely fell out of love with music and the lifestyle associated with it. I yearned for what my heart has always been attached to: the soil. Over the next ten years, Slowly, doors would start to open for me that would ultimately lead me to my present location which is farming 10 acres in Bonsall, Ca.


What did people, particularly your family, say when you started farming? Or told them you wanted to farm?

I think that anyone who really knows me knows that I have always had an innate desire to work the land since I was very young. It was a matter of how or when it would eventually happen.


Where do you grow your products?

I grow on 10 acres in Bonsall, California 35 minutes north of my home near MCAS. Miramar.


Where do you sell them?

I sell the majority of my produce directly to the public as a certified producer at Poway Farmers Market every Saturday from 8am -1pm. I also sell to chefs and wholesale such as specialty produce during the week.



How do you get them to the marketplace?

Pretty simple actually! I usually pick to order and use my pickup truck to transport from Bonsall to market. I also use very old-fashioned methods of maintaining freshness without the use of expensive and prolonged refrigeration.


Do you have help? Employees?

Finding reliable help has been one of the greatest challenges in growing my business. Fortunately, with the guidance of my mentor Anthony Maciel, I have learned how to maximize production with minimal effort.


Does your Italian heritage play any part in your life? Your work?

Italian Americans are known to be very tactile, industrious, and entrepreneurial people. Especially those from the south of Italy and where my father is from in Sicily. Italians and south and Western Europeans are very agricultural people. While I don’t have any direct relatives in farming, it is said that this burning desire that I have to grow food for people to eat is inherited from my Great Grandfather Vitale and his brothers who were tomato exporters in Sicily between 1910 and 1915.


Has that been any inspiration?

My fathers father, Nono Pietro Balistreri, was a fisherman and stone Carver in Aspra, Palermo, Sicily. He would excavate by pick and shovel blocks from the earth to be used in construction. He would also dig caves in the surrounding hillsides to shelter families from bombs dropping during the onset of World War II. I believe that hard work is in my genes. I think about all the long hours toiling in the hot sun my grandfather put in whenever I feel overwhelmed with farming. If he could do it, I could do it too. It makes me feel a connection to my ancestors and my identity as an American with Italian roots.


Can you talk about your family?

I was born and raise in the suburbs of northern San Diego County. In a middle-class family, the youngest of three brothers and son of a Sicilian immigrant father and Mexican American / Sicilian mother. My parents owned Italian restaurants from the late 1960s to the late 1980s: in order they were Leonardo’s, on Clairemont Mesa Blvd, 1967 – 1976 , Ciao on Miramar Road from 1976-1982 and lastly Rocco’s Pizza on the corner of Grand and Cass in Pacific Beach from 1982-1988. I was only 8 years old when my parents sold Rocco’s. My father made a life and owned a home in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in San Diego by blood, sweat and tears and long hours in the restaurant business. Life was good as a young person in the 80s in the suburbs. We were free to roam the canyons and play outside until the streetlights came on. We had a huge family and extended family. Lots of cousins, aunts and uncles who were headed by the grandparents. We were always together and were always celebrating something a holiday it seems. Mom insisted on Sunday dinners around the table as an immediate family and always either included one of her sisters and her kids or her parents. We were the stereotypical Italian American family you see in movies. Huge families around the dinner table and a strong foundational support system.


Does your Catholic faith play a part in your life? in your work?

For many Italian Americans our Catholic faith is foundational to our identity, our culture and traditions. For me it is about a relationship with Jesus Christ the founder of the Church we call home. I believe that Christ calls us to vocation and opens doors and opportunities if we cooperate and discern his will for our life. Our faith teaches us to place Gods will above our own. I can’t live without the Eucharist, Mass and Holy Days of Obligation. My faith keeps me centered. Farming isn’t easy, in fact to me it seems miraculous that one man can feed so many people. Sometimes it feels impossible, but I remember that God didn’t bring me this far to drop me off at the curb.


Have you “grown” or learned anything through the years you have been farming?

Farming for a living is a sure way to learn to accept life as it comes to you. Before I became a farmer, I can remember really kicking and screaming when things didn’t go my way. When things don’t go well in farming for you, you really, really feel it in the pocketbook. But here is where you must rely on faith and trust God to provide. Farming is in a way a microcosm or metaphor for life itself. There are many successes and there are also failures. I have learned and continue to learn to maintain my peace, peace through it all but I am still a work in progress. It helps that the successes bring immeasurable joy to me. This is how I know I am cooperating with Gods plan. The more you put in, the more you get out. The more you sow the more you reap.


What have you learned farming? Can you share any wisdom or advice?

I’ve learned that anything that is worthwhile is going to have difficulties. Nothing is easy. I love what I do but it can be extremely difficult physically and emotionally taxing at times. I could have a desk job, out of the elements in a nice warm office with a nice view of downtown San Diego but for me that would be difficult too because I wouldn’t feel like I am doing what my heart desires. I’ve learned that every choice you make has a consequence and there is a price for every move you make in life.


Can you talk about the state of small farming in Southern California? Is it under threat? Or is there a movement to preserve it? Is it thriving?

According to the San Diego County Farm Bureau there are 6000 small scale farms in San Diego County, under five acres, which is more per capita than any other county in the United States. I can attest nobody is getting rich from doing this. Even though there is a large community of small farmers in our county, we are all being met with the same challenges: Access to affordable land, water and the cost of municipal water, access to reliable labor. Aside from that the great thing about farming in our region is the unbearable 365 day a year growing season that affords is the ability to provide a multitude of crops to our community. In addition, the demand for locally grown agricultural products is ever increasing as consumers want to support local food systems and want to develop relationships with the people who grow their food.


Can you talk about your family’s history? When they immigrated from Italy? From what part of Italy? How and where did they settle originally? How/why did they (and you) end up in San Diego?

My father immigrated to San Diego’s Little Italy in 1960 from Aspra, Palermo, Sicily with his family. It was here he met my mother, who was half Sicilian and half Mexican American. She lived in a home that was well over 100 years old in Bankers Hill. Her Mexican father, my grandfather, was a First Sergeant in the Marine Corp and served several tours in the South Pacific during World War II, Vietnam and Korea. My mom’s mother was 100 percent Sicilian and her family hailed from Portociello, Sicily which is the next town over from Aspra. She was born in Racine, Wisconsin and moved to San Diego when she was a young girl. She became a Cannery worker here in San Diego.


How do you feel when you are out on the farm? And when you see the finished product being sold to hungry customers?

How do I feel out on the farm ? Well, the cool thing is that I am always excited to be there and there is always something cool to do. I’m constantly prioritizing and knocking out tasks. Breaking down projects into bite size manageable projects makes it very product exciting and fulfilling. Things don’t always go according to plan however and it is extremely tiring at times. In the midst of the day to day the number one priority is my body. How do I feel? Overtired? Overwhelmed? Stressed? If any of those feelings present themselves I have to scale back work to self care. Getting sick can be catastrophic. I was recently out with Covid for one week and I was unable to get my product to market. It was a God awful feeling to be bed ridden while missing out on money and when bills are due. Still if you don’t have health you are not in business. The body comes first ALWAYS. As far as how do I feel selling my product at the market? I feel a sense of pride and fulfillment. It’s probably my favorite thing about being a farmer. My customers are extremely great full loyal and rave about the quality of my produce.





I feel like food really brings people together. Me, my dad and daughter have made great friends with some of our regular customers. They come out and support us rain or shine and they couldn’t be happier to do so. I feel like we need each other, and I am so humbled by this. It really encourages me to put out the best of what I grow and to always strive for the utmost quality.


Can you talk about being a father and a farmer? Does that cause any challenges? Or any joy?


I previously mentioned stressors in the last question. If there is one thing in the world that is more difficult than raising vegetables on a large scale, it’s raising a teenage girl by yourself. When you pair those two things together you have my life in a nutshell. I am not complaining but I’m not exaggerating either. I literally ask myself every single day how on earth I am still standing. I will tell you that some days are plain and simply unbearable, but the bright side is that they do come to pass and the blessings of being a father far outweigh the tough times. Being a dad to a teenage daughter is a lot like raising a very sensitive and needy crop – say like sweet corn. There’s this phase that corn is very vulnerable to insect infestation. It requires you to keep a watchful eye and act accordingly. When I think about this particular crop in comparison to a teenage girl, I see strikingly similar characteristics. I am literally at both tasks alone. They both rely on me and me alone. If I’m not present things can go very bad. I’ll say that I especially enjoy when my daughter comes to help sell at the farmers market. It’s not her favorite thing to do but I feel like not only am I earning a living, but I am teaching her responsibly and life skills at the same time. I also see that it helps build her confidence, people skills, customer service, cash handling, business and a platform for her to shine. It’s very rewarding for me to spend time with her in action at the market. Selling my produce alongside my daughter is something I thoroughly look forward to each week!





What is your business’ name? Do you have a website? A social media page?

D’Acquisto Farms. The Sicilian surname, which so happens to be my Great-Grandmothers maiden name, which translates into “Good Acquisition” or “Good Purchase”

You can find us on Instagram and Facebook under the same name all one word no Apostrophe in “D’AcquistoFarms


What is your business phone number and email?

858-361-9926 farmer Joseph direct line

Email dacquistofarms@gmail.com


What is your goal? your long-term plan or “dream”? Where do you see yourself in 10 or even 20 years?

My ultimate end goal is to live on a family farm of my own in the county I call home. I hope to grow my business to employ a labor force and expand operations to larger acreage in the areas surrounding Bonsall. I hope to become more and more proficient in the crops I currently grow while experimenting with new specialties and take on more clientele. In the short term I hope to start a coop farm stand at my current farm site and become a one stop shop for fresh picked farm goods like watermelons, our already famous sweet corn flowers, our sweet onions, pumpkins in the fall as well as tree fruit from local growers and all of our other seasonal produce.


Do you keep any Italian traditions or customs in your life?

Food is a huge part of our family. Maintaining those traditional recipes often used around the holidays or Sunday dinners is an integral part of the Italian American experience. I always say that my love language is food. Growing up I couldn’t understand why for my grandmother there was nothing better in the world than to see her children and grandchildren around the table enjoying a meal together. Now that my family is much smaller, I find myself carrying on those same traditions.





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