For many years, Maggie's Farm, based in Agoura Hills, has sold top-quality salad greens and herbs exclusively at farmers markets. Kenter Canyon Farms offers a wider range of similar produce, at a few farmers markets, but mostly wholesale and on a much larger scale. Many shoppers know that the two farms are owned by members of the same family, but few realize that they offer two versions, boutique and commercial, of production that now comes mostly from the same land.
On a recent tour of Kenter's Ventura County grounds, the owner of Maggie's, Nate Peitso, who is the son and stepson of the owners of Kenter, showed off scores of immaculately tended hoop houses packed with rows of herbs such as thyme, tarragon and mint. In the open air, beds of salad greens, completely level so that they can be harvested by a mechanized mower, stretched to the horizon.
The histories of Maggie's and Kenter Canyon farms are long and intertwined. Nate's parents, Dennis Peitso and Andrea Crawford, started growing baby organic salad greens in Berkeley yards in 1981 to sell to Chez Panisse, where she had worked as a waitress. They called the business the Produce Garden. In 1984, they moved to Los Angeles to grow for Wolfgang Puck in Venice. They later expanded to leased land in Tarzana under the Kenter Canyon power lines, from which they took their farm name, and in Agoura Hills.
Dennis and Andrea divorced in 1989, and she married Robert Dedlow, who had also worked as a waiter at Chez Panisse. Over time those two greatly expanded Kenter's plantings and sold to chains such as Whole Foods and Bristol Farms. Kenter now cultivates 390 acres in three areas: on 160 acres in Fillmore, where they have farmed since 2000; on 180 acres near Imperial and Westmorland, in the desert, for better winter production; and on 50 acres in Hollister, upstate. Their largest crops include baby lettuce, arugula, spinach and basil.
They have survived brutal shakeouts in their industry by hard work and meticulous quality control. Andrea supervises Kenter's farmers market sales, while Robert travels much of the time to supervise farming operations.
About 1995, Dennis, who had a more laid-back approach, split off his own portion of the business, which he renamed Maggie's Farm after the Bob Dylan song. He grew crops in Tarzana and Agoura Hills but remained small (roughly 10 acres in cultivation) and developed a cult following at farmers markets, partly for very fresh, local organic greens and partly for his droll, charismatic persona. He served in the Navy in Vietnam, earned a master's in Chinese language and culture, lived on a sailboat in Marina del Rey and was married for several years to Rebecca Broussard, Jack Nicholson's ex-girlfriend.
Dennis retired in 2008 and passed ownership of Maggie's Farm to Nate, who is tall, agreeable and gently ironic. He had worked for both parents on and off, and explored several alternate careers: notably, he and a friend had traveled to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, intending to set up a beachside rum bar, before a late-night encounter with the business end of an AK-47, wielded by larcenous "police," disabused him of that dream. He briefly owned the Tradewinds business selling mushrooms in the noncertified sections of farmers markets.
Nate took over Maggie's Farm from his father and made some changes. He gave up the Tarzana lease, where rent and water costs had increased greatly, cut back on production from Agoura Hills and shifted to drawing mainly on harvests from Kenter Canyon to benefit from its larger scale and lower costs. He calls the arrangement with his family a "work-trade program," in which he does research, marketing and trouble-shooting for Kenter and receives the pick of the farm's produce to sell at Maggie's.
There are still some differences between Maggie's and Kenter's produce: Kenter's display of herbs offers such a wide variety that it could illustrate an encyclopedia, while Maggie's is more selective. Many of the greens sold by Maggie's are hand-harvested near the stem, for a cleaner cut and longer life than mechanically harvested leaves, Nate says. Maggie's offers its own special blends, like its signature stellar mix, including red and green lettuces, marigold and calendula petals, dill, chives, parsley and basil. But most greens and herbs for Maggie's come from Kenter and are washed at its state-of-the-art facility in Sun Valley.
Nate still grows some greens and herbs, along with tomatoes and chiles in the summer, at his site in Agoura Hills but has focused recently there on raising eggs from chickens fed on surplus greens from the farms. Kenter has an experimental planting in Hollister of heirloom wheat, including spelt and farro, which Andrea hopes to bring to market this summer.
About two-thirds of Kenter's land is certified organic; this provides the great majority of what Kenter sells at farmers markets, says Andrea. For its remaining production in Agoura Hills, Maggie's uses organic practices but is not certified organic, says Nate.
With several hundred acres in multiple growing areas and its main business focused on sales to supermarkets, Kenter Canyon Farms may have outgrown the romantic vision held by many farmers market shoppers of a small farm. But Andrea and Robert still think of themselves as running a small farm, and indeed they are minnows compared with a giant such as Earthbound Farm, which markets greens grown on tens of thousands of acres. Both Maggie's and Kenter's stands deliver fresh, locally grown, mostly organic produce at a reasonable price, which are arguably the most important criteria for consumers.
Maggie's Farm sells at the Santa Monica (Wednesday, Saturday downtown and Sunday), Venice, Mar Vista, Encino and Long Beach Marina farmers markets. Kenter Canyon Farms is at Calabasas, Santa Monica Virginia Park, Beverly Hills and Hollywood markets.