Market Watch: Country Fresh Herbs sprouts up
Co-owner Michael Feig started as a chef, then sold his fresh herbs to restaurants. Now he's bringing his produce to area farmers markets.
Brandon Dimperio of Inner Gardens and Tea Trunk sells these potted herbs, as well as nursery stock, which he grows in Topanga Canyon, at the Silver Lake farmers market. (David Karp / June 18, 2011)
A recent morning started stressfully for co-owner Michael Feig at his farm in Somis, with a worker involved in a car accident and a busted gasket in a backflow valve, which threatened to shut off the irrigation to his 13 acres of tomatoes, vegetables and herbs. But while others might have fritzed out, he dealt with the problems with an equanimity born of decades of twists and turns, as he segued from chef to farmer, selling first to restaurants and now also to farmers markets.
Feig, born 57 years ago near Worcester, Mass., still has a Northeastern accent and wears a Red Sox baseball cap. He knew as a youngster that he was going to be doing something with my hands, he said, and after serving in the Air Force he trained as a chef at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I. He moved to Los Angeles and worked as executive sous-chef at Ma Maison in the '80s, where he enjoyed the license to be creative. But when his son Garrett was born in 1985, he "wanted to be able to coach his baseball team," something the grueling schedule of a chef's life wouldn't allow.
At the time fresh, high-quality herbs were rare. Inspired by a supplier, Feig and his wife, Kathy, started growing herbs such as rosemary, mint, basil and chives in their backyard, and sold them to restaurants; they also did catering. As the demands for product outgrew their garden, Feig leased 3 acres in Tarzana from the Department of Water and Power, under the utility lines.
As his business expanded further, Feig and a partner also leased land in Somis, where the moderate coastal climate is better suited to year-round production, and planted arugula, spinach, squash, eggplant, cucumbers and melons. They leased a warehouse in Tarzana and a small facility for growing micro-greens in Oxnard.
The Feigs bought out their partner four years ago, just before the economy soured, and the restaurant supply business became increasingly competitive and difficult. "The restaurants are going under, and they don't pay their bills," he said. "You take a couple $7,000, $8,000 hits, that's a beating for a guy like me."
Looking around for another avenue for sales, the Feigs started going to farmers markets, with the aid of Garrett, who had a business marketing degree but no job. The markets are a small but increasing portion of their sales, and they sell at Moorpark (Fridays), La Cañada Flintridge and Glendale Gigi (Saturdays), Brentwood and Westlake Village (Sundays) and Sherman Oaks (Tuesdays).
More recently they have sold their produce to a small community-supported agriculture program run by Napa Valley Grille in Westwood and have experimented with organic growing practices, with the hope of making a full transition eventually.
In another attempt to find a more profitable niche, the Feigs leased two half-acre greenhouses in Somis to grow off-season tomatoes: heirloom (such as Cherokee Purple, Brandywine and Striped German), cherry and beefsteak varieties, and San Marzano plum tomatoes, unsurpassed for making sauce. It hasn't been easy — the humidity is higher in a greenhouse than in the field, and so the plants are more susceptible to disease — but Feig has persevered, saying, "Failure is not an option."
As he wound up a tour of his farm, Feig was relieved to learn that his worker was unhurt in the accident and that a repairman for the backflow valve was on the way.
"It's exhausting. I haven't had a day off since New Year's," he said. "But I really dig what I'm doing. It's just so damn rewarding when you see a crop, and you go, 'Oh, my God, I did it! I'm pumped!' "
We are so spoiled by the abundance of great produce at Southern California farmers markets that it is rare that supermarket fruits prove alluring. But such is the case with CandyCots apricots of Central Asian origin grown in the Modesto area, which will be available starting today at Whole Foods markets in Glendale and Venice.
Relatively small and tawny, they don't look impressive, but if you bite into one, your jaw will drop. The flesh is deep orange, and its texture is dense and meaty, with none of the mealyness that so often ruins other apricots. They are outrageously sweet — a recent batch averaged 29 degrees Brix, a standard measure of sugar, compared to 21 degrees for premium dry-farmed Blenheims — and they have enough refreshing acidity for well-balanced flavor. Put that together with intense, complex, very pleasant aromatics, and you've got a powerhouse fruit, unique and irresistible.
When I first wrote about CandyCots several years ago, a well-known retailer in New York berated me because he was certain that a fruit that tasted so good had to be genetically modified. He refused to believe it, but in fact CandyCots are natural, highly superior apricots derived from seeds legally imported from Central Asia by John Driver, a farmer in Waterford, Calif.
Driver spent more than a decade testing and selecting seedling varieties to find those that offered the best combination of fruit quality and adaptation to California conditions; then, in conjunction with several partners, he planted commercial orchards. There are 100 acres in the ground, of which 12 are bearing now, says Chris Britton, a partner. "CandyCot" is a trademarked name for Driver's varieties, including Anya, small and very intense, and Yuliya, which is larger and almost as good.
The challenges for growers and marketers are considerable. In addition to their small size (about half that of commercial varieties), which makes them more expensive to pick and pack, CandyCots tend to develop scuff marks, cosmetic blemishes that appear unattractive to the uninitiated. But these scuffed fruits are actually the tastiest of all, like nectarines with sugar spots.
Driver and his sons will sell CandyCots for the next two or three weeks at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers market. After their debut at the Whole Foods stores in Glendale and Venice this weekend ($5.99 for a 1-pound container), CandyCots will be available at other stores in the chain next week and at Grow, a high-end produce store in Manhattan Beach. They also are going out to a few restaurants, including Mélisse, Providence and the Bazaar, although it's hard to imagine how pastry chef wizardry could improve on the natural product.