They started going to the brand-new farmers markets. At first, there were just three: Santa Monica, Pacoima and Gardena. "We learned pretty quickly that this wasn't a bad deal," Alex says. "Going the regular way, we might not make enough money to cover the costs of packing and production. But what I was doing was bringing in cash."
Today, the Weisers grow dozens of crops (and in the case of melons and potatoes, dozens of varieties). As part of their marketing effort, Dan sends out a weekly e-mail to chefs, wholesalers and customers, letting them know just what is going to be available. This week's list includes green almonds, Bulls Blood beet greens, lilacs, green garlic, Bloomsdale spinach and more than a dozen types and sizes of potatoes.
Ideas for new things to plant come from a variety of sources. Alex is constantly scouring seed catalogs and websites ("farmer porn," Dan jokes). And farmers markets work not only as a place to sell crops, but also to find ideas for new ones. Chefs will make special requests. Alex is in the second year of trying to grow crosnes for Citrin (they're a crisp tuber that's all the rage in France). And when Alain Giraud came back from vacation this year, he brought ideas for several melons and for a French purple potato called Vitelotte.
Alex also gets ideas from his competitors. "That's how we started with lilacs. I remember years ago looking at this incredible line in front of the stand next to me. Heck, we'd had lilacs on the farm for years, just because we liked them. I thought to myself, 'I bet I can sell those.' This time of year, that's one of our best sellers."
Though Alex acknowledges the need to expand the business, he insists farmers markets will always be at the core.
"The market gives us the confidence we need to grow stuff," he says. "It confirms our ideas about what people are looking for. And also, knowing that I can always sell stuff here gives me leverage I wouldn't have otherwise when dealing with produce companies. If they can't give me a decent price, I know I can move it myself rather than just relying on them and taking what they want to give me. The worst-case scenario, I know I'm not going to lose my shirt on something; I've always got my costs covered.
"Farmers are always at the bottom of the food chain. But farmers markets give us a little control over our fates."
Furthermore, the markets act as magnets for other business. "I have to say that what's almost as important for us is what the markets produce beyond the markets," Alex says. "We get all kinds of produce companies coming through. They bring people here for education; it's kind of a showroom for new products. And they become some of our best customers."
A little later, as if on cue, a couple of execs from Melissa's, a specialty-produce wholesaler, come by the stand. Peter Steinbrick and Kenny Kataoka both whip out digital cameras and start snapping pictures of what the Weisers have grown.
"Can we do something with this?" one asks the other. "What about this? Try some of this spinach; this is awesome."
Their enthusiasm is almost overwhelming. "If you really want to know what this is about, look at the consumers here," Steinbrick says. "You know why they come here? They're looking for heirloom quality. They remember when food used to taste like something and shopping here brings back that flavor. It's something you can't get anywhere else.
"Plus, there is an emotional connection to the food. There's a lot of theater to it. This is what we need to get back to in supermarkets, somehow. That's what we do at Melissa's: We serve as a liaison between the farmers markets and the supermarkets."
They ask if the Weisers will grow some more of those La Ratte potatoes again for them, and leave business cards, promising they'll be in touch.
Deals like this are not uncommon. Farmers market growers are beginning to elbow their way into the supermarket aisles that once belonged exclusively to conventional farmers. Last summer, Bristol Farms sold heirloom tomatoes that bore the label of Tutti Frutti Farms, whose Santa Monica market stand is just across Arizona Avenue from the Weisers'.
But the transition is still at an awkward stage. A couple of days later, Alex says Melissa's did call. At first it seemed promising, but then he got passed up the ranks. "The first thing the guy asks me is, 'What if we want 20,000 boxes of that?' " Alex says. "And then he starts asking how cheap we can grow it.
"I had to explain to him that that's not what we do. We're not a volume business. We'd rather have quality, and that means having certain limitations."
Shrimp in romesco with wilted spinach