Harry Nicholas, who celebrates his 90th birthday Saturday, drives round-trip twice a week from southeast of Fresno to Los Angeles area farmers markets, where he is likely the oldest farmer to participate actively. As if that weren't enough, he's got the goofiest, most lovable grin in the markets, he's a snazzy dresser (partial to bolo ties and purple pimp hats) and he grows extraordinary produce.
Some of his crops, such as Armenian cucumber, pomegranate and quince, might reflect the influence of his father, Joseph, who emigrated from Lebanon, worked drilling wells and in 1918 bought a ranch in Orange Cove, where he planted a vineyard. Harry, one of eight children, left high school in the late 1930s to work on the farm.
During World War II, he served in the Navy on PT-350, nicknamed the "Shifty Fifty," which was strafed by friendly fire off the coast of New Britain. Three of its crew died. Nicholas survived, just nicked by gunfire.
A 1945 photo shows him beside his new bride, Gloria, wearing a smartly pressed uniform and his trademark grin. The next year he resumed farming, and his postwar fruit crate labels depict a paradise of bygone grapes, including Ribier, Red Malaga and Kandahar. Nicholas started selling at farmers markets soon after they started in the late 1970s, and he still attends Santa Monica on Saturday (Virginia Park) and Wednesday, and Beverly Hills on Sunday.
"I don't need the money, but I like the people," he says. Managers, other farmers and shoppers love him back, and one customer even sketched the design for his birthday cake in Beverly Hills.
Nicholas will celebrate at home with his two daughters this weekend (July 14 and 15), but starting Wednesday, or soon thereafter, he'll be back with luscious, supersweet Flavor Queen Pluots; Tulare Giants, large purple European purple plums related to prunes; and Thomcord grapes, which combine the seedlessness of Thompson and the blue-black skin and intense, foxy flavor of Concord. In September he'll have Italia and Muscat of Alexandria grapes, and some of the only chestnuts at farmers markets.
He withstood with fortitude the deaths of his wife, Gloria, in 2010, and of his son and namesake just six weeks ago. But as he blew out the candles on his birthday cake on Sunday, there was a seriousness behind his smile as he revealed his wish: "I just hope I'll be here next year."
There are a fair number of farmers in their 80s in the markets, but virtually no nonagenarians other than Nicholas.
Art Lange of Honey Crisp, the dean of farmers market stone fruit growers, will be 90 in October, but he is "recovering from a pretty tough stroke," he said recently from a convalescent home in Selma. His son Kurt is managing the orchard, and his neighbor and master grafter, Ron Cornelsen, continues to sell his own and Lange's fruit at Santa Monica on Wednesdays and at Beverly Hills. Coming up they'll have Flavor Queen Pluots, Santa Rosa plums and Arctic Rose white nectarines — the first and the best of modern white nectarines, almost sickly sweet but with real aromatics and a crucial tinge of counterbalancing acidity.
Kurt takes his father once a week to see the orchard. Art's voice is soft, and his legs barely work, but he is eager to get back to farming.
"I'm hoping I'll be back on the tractor before long," he said.
David Schack, who turned 90 in May, has never been a farmer himself, but he has a very personal reason for continuing to sell goat cheese at the Santa Monica Wednesday market. He was born in New York City, grew up in the automobile business and was a Studebaker dealer in Westwood for many years (a dating item for anyone's resume!), then worked as a mechanic.
His son, Steven, with his wife, Jennifer, established Redwood Hill Farm in Sonoma County, where they raised prize-winning goats and made superb cheese. Starting in 1996, David and his wife, Maggie, started selling the cheese, shipped overnight, at the Santa Monica market. Eleven years ago, just before Steven would have turned 50, he died of cancer, devastating his parents.
"He was a pain in the ass when he was a teenager, but he turned into such a mensch when he grew up, and we were just very close," David said last Wednesday, his eyes gleaming with remembrance.
Jennifer continues to operate the farm with her brother, Scott. In recent years Maggie became severely incapacitated with Alzheimer's disease, and David might have stopped selling at the market except for one thing.
"I promised my son that as long as I was healthy I would work at the farmers market selling cheese," he said. "I really believe in keeping that promise."
Tip of the week: Wong Farms usually starts bringing its craved desert mangoes, grown just north of the Salton Sea, in mid-August, but this year they're freakishly early. Deborah Wong Chamberlain will have canary yellow, kidney-shaped Valencia Prides this Saturday (July 14) at the Palm Springs farmers market and next Wednesday at Santa Monica. A week or so later she'll start with Keitt, the main variety she grows, which is more oval and greenish, and almost as scrumptious. The good news is that her bearing acreage has doubled (from 1 to 2!) now that a young planting is starting to produce, but demand still exceeds supply, even at $3.75 a pound, so show up early or reserve in advance: (760) 265-9167; firstname.lastname@example.org. For the first week or two, she'll ration supplies by offering a $10 bag rather than a larger flat.