Why the Bay Area’s hottest restaurants look to this Half Moon Bay farm as their secret source for produce

They can be tough to grow, but the beans at Iacopi Farms have garnered rock star status with in-the-know local chefs and foodies alike

Mike Iacopi shows off his English peas. Iacopi Farms is best known for their dry beans and shelling beans, but also grow an array of veggies like artichokes, Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, cauliflower and beets. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

Six days before the restaurant institution NOPA opened on Divisadero Street in San Francisco, head chef Laurence Jossel didn’t have a menu. Scrambling for inspiration, he picked up the phone to consult an industry mentor, who told him to quit the fuss. “Oh Laurence, just put some beans in the oven!” she said.

So that’s what he did.

Jossel cooked local gigantes beans in aromatics topped with a red sauce, fresh feta, oregano pesto and breadcrumbs. The dish was a hit and has stayed on NOPA’s menu since its 2006 opening night without any deviation from its original recipe. The source of their beans hasn’t changed either — Iacopi Farms in Half Moon Bay.

“[Their beans] are amazing. They’re delicious in the oven and remarkably consistent,” Jossel told me.

A “bumper crop” of new butter beans at Iacopi Farms — that’s when plants fill out entire rows. Bumper crops are difficult to come by at Iacopi without access to adequate water sources. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

With six plots of land scattered south of Moss Beach (including one plot between the landing strips at the Half Moon Bay Airport), Iacopi covers over 200 acres along a scenic stretch of the San Mateo County coast and has become the go-to legume source for over 80 Bay Area restaurants.

Noon All Day, an upscale brunch addition to San Francisco’s industrial Dogpatch neighborhood, includes Iacopi’s butter beans in their Beans and Greens dish (accompanied by a poached egg, sautéed greens, fermented chile and toast). Down the street from Jossel’s NOPA on Divisadero, the much anticipated Che Fico opened its doors in May strutting a mafaldini (ribbon-shaped pasta) with fava-leaf pesto and fresh green fava beans on top. The favas, I learned from executive chef David Nayfeld, were from Iacopi Farms in Half Moon Bay. The list continues.

With so many top Bay Area chefs pointing to the same source, I was curious to investigate the magic behind these local beans that were being grown in a seaside town known as much for big-wave surfing as big-time farming.

Mike Iacopi at his farm tucked between the runways at Half Moon Bay Airport. He’s been farming alongside his father, Louis, since the 1970s but still finds himself in the fields at 7 a.m. almost every morning. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

Cool beans

I arrive at 3-Zero Cafe at the Half Moon Bay Airport 15 minutes late for our scheduled meeting but I’m greeted by Mike Iacopi—owner of Iacopi Farms— with a smile as if I were right on time. The cafe air is heavy with coffee aromas and its tables are packed with locals loading up on sausage, pancakes and eggs in the late afternoon.

Outside, all is calm on the concrete runways and from a distance the land that’s supposed to produce the best beans in the Bay Area are easily mistaken for overgrown, unmaintained shrubbery.

On our first phone call, Mike told me of the extra difficulty of having a plot located between takeoff and landing strips, leaving me to imagine farmers having to constantly dodge the oncoming air traffic. But it soon becomes obvious that this little airport is no SFO. We don’t see a single plane take off or land during the hour we are there.

The difficulty of the location comes from the lack of a water supply, which forces Iacopi to dry farm, an agriculture approach that is exactly what it sounds like — growing crops without any irrigation. The method presents a number of difficulties, including having to till the land much more than if it were irrigated and plant the seeds further into the soil. Mike says they have to plant their beans five to six inches deep.

Red tractor and red onions. The disks attachments to the right of the tractor are used to break up the hard, Half Moon Bay soil. Mike says they have to hit the ground with the disk at least five times before planting any seeds. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

Even then, it’s rare to get a “bumper crop,” where rows are fully sprouted. Of their 200 acres, Iacopi usually only yields 120 acres of product. Last year they lost their entire field below Half Moon Bay High School because the land was so dry it had basically turned to concrete.

But spend an afternoon with a farmer and you’ll learn that problems can arise from just about anywhere.

Mike tells me he worries about the opposite issue of too much water and moisture. The cool air and fog of Half Moon Bay cause the beans to grow slower than they would in the heat of say, the Salinas Valley. And if rain comes at the wrong time (right before the beans are harvested), Iacopi’s entire crop could get wiped out. He loses sleep all through October thinking about the rain.

The ground itself in Half Moon Bay is problematic as well. “It’s basically clay,” Mike tells me. “It doesn’t till properly and you have to hit it with a disk at least five times. A lot of the soil isn’t worth anything because it’s class three or four soil. Class one is the best. Class three is crappy.”

The wonderful irony for Iacopi Farms, however, is that almost every reason why farming shouldn’t work on their land — the cool, ocean air, the lack of irrigation, the hardened soil — is also why Mike believes their produce possesses complex, distinguishing flavors that keep customers wanting more.

“It takes them forever to grow because we’re dry farming in clay and the plants are struggling the whole entire time. But the more they have to struggle, the more sugars they grab in the ground,” he says. He also thinks the dew from the ocean air is what gives his beans their signature, salty finish.

Mike Iacopi plows the ground on an old, 1950s Caterpillar to bring up moisture before planting butter beans on a plot close to Pillar Point Harbor. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

Unlikely insiders

Between Highway 1 and the Old Princeton Landing parking lot lies another Iacopi plot, where we happened upon Mike’s father Louis watching one of their workers turn up dirt on a 1950s Caterpillar tractor.

“Seventy years ago, that was the best tractor made!” Louis tells me from the window of his pickup truck. “All this new stuff, if it breaks you need a computer to fix it.”

Louis started Iacopi Farms in 1962, after his father, an Italian immigrant, had worked as a chef at Cascade Ranch in Pescadero.

Louis has noticed the growing interest in his crop. “Beans have been in and out of our diets forever. It was a poor man’s food but people are realizing how important it is to our diets and they’re eating more.”

Mike tells me that in 1997, they had maybe three or four chefs come to farmer’s markets to source Iacopi beans. Bradley Ogden at Marin’s Lark Creek Inn back in 1994 was the first. Now with around 80 restaurants featuring Iacopi Farms, he has trouble keeping all their names straight — Michelin stars or not.

“Their names are so screwed up,” Mike says with a laugh. “I’m usually like, ‘What the hell does that even mean?’”

A dozen or so have invited the Iacopi’s to dine at their restaurants. “When we go in there, it’s like a football player’s walking in. Chefs like the farmers. We make their job easy when we give them the best produce around.”

Iacopi Farms are best known for their dried beans (Italian butter, Gigantes, borlotti and cannelini) and their shelling beans (favas, blue lake and Romano). They’re also growing English peas, sugar snaps, artichokes, Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, cauliflower and beets.

Besides their restaurant connections, Iacopi only sells their produce to local food suppliers like Greenleaf and SF Specialty and at farmers markets, including markets on the Peninsula: Los Altos on Thursday evenings, College of San Mateo on Saturday, and Mountain View and Palo Alto on Sunday.

From left: Mike Iacopi shows off his fava beans. He says even after 40 years in the fields, he loves breaking them open for a quick snack; Mike with his dad Louis Iacopi. Mike is thethird generation of a farming family from Italy that was honored as Farmers of the Year in 2016; getting hands on with a hoe to dig out weeds and shape the soil. (Photos by Natalia Nazarova)

Agrarian economy

If there’s one complaint with Iacopi’s product it’s their growing price.

NOPA’s Jossel says fifty pounds of beans started at $200 when he first bought from Iacopi, but today he pays $240. Inevitably, he thinks, prices will be up to $250 next year.

“Every year I’ll say, ‘I can’t believe the price has gone up again,’” Jossel tells me. He says Louis’ response is always the same. “‘Oh Laurence, just sell another cocktail.’”

Mike points to the inconveniences of farming in the Half Moon Bay as reasons why their beans are not cheap. The beans have to be cleaned using a machine all the way out in Salinas. If one of his tractors breaks down, he has to haul it to Watsonville or Stockton and he loses a day of work. Consistent labor is difficult to find around harvest time. “When you need five extra guys, you don’t have ’um,” he says.

And then there’s the wildlife. Blackbirds eating his crops cost him $20,000 a year. Deer cost him another $20,000. Mice cost him $10,000. “They’re literally eating away our profits, but we can’t do anything about them. If we did, we’d spend all day trying to get rid of them,” Mike explains.

“People will come up to me at farmer’s markets and ask, ‘Why’s this so expensive?’ I just shake my head and think, ‘Well, why’s everything so expensive?’”

Mike’s favorite view from his property. The land’s proximity to the coast results in many soil types, from heavy clay to sandy loam. Cover crops, manures and commercial fertilizers are used to improve soil structure. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

Rustic roots

We drive to Iacopi’s southernmost plot, nestled against the hills about a mile past the Ritz Carlton Resort. Mike takes me off-road, up an unplanted trail to reach his favorite view from any of his properties. We’re surrounded by farmland, with little green, bean plants just peaking past the class three dirt. Mike wishes I had come a month later to grab better photos when his crop would be more impressive.

The Pacific shines in the distance.

Mike points down to the cliffs and tells me that’s where his family farmed when he was a kid. He remembers driving the tractor all the way up to the edge, sometimes doing so at night. Him and his brothers also would ride dirt bikes along the cliffs and he thinks about how dangerous that must have been. If they would have fallen, they surely would have died.

At the top of this hill also lies Iacopi’s tractor graveyard. The same salt that gives his beans their extra edge also causes his equipment extra rust, and not all the vintage tractors have weathered well.

Iacopi does not have a big barn to house all of their equipment and not all of them can weather the salty, ocean air. Thus, a tractor graveyard has formed over the years. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

I ask him if he ever considers moving to a place like the Central Valley, where he could avoid the rust-inducing fog, have access to irrigation and farm in top notch soil rather than hard clay. But he quickly shuts down the idea.

“This is where we grew up,” he tells me. “This is the land we know.”

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