Altadena farmers market

Elizabeth Bowman and Joseph Shuldiner, managers of the new Altadena certified farmers market, at the urban farm of Blaise Delacroix in Altadena. (David Karp / May 28, 2012)

The Altadena certified farmers market, which opened last Wednesday afternoon after weeks of anticipatory buzz, is innovative and deeply idealistic. It showcases more than half a dozen small urban farms, most of which are selling at a farmers market for the first time, and the quality of its more established farms is high enough to draw shoppers from across the region.

Of the dozens of new farmers markets that open in Southern California each year, all but a few are cookie-cutter affairs, featuring vendors familiar from other markets; more often than not, the primary motive is to draw foot traffic to nearby businesses or to generate profits for the organizers. By contrast, Joseph Shuldiner, founder and manager of the Altadena market, says that his purpose is "to challenge the ways of food distribution in an urban setting and to bring urban farmers to the attention of the public."

His brainchild's idiosyncrasy reflects its unusual genesis. After a career as an art director for the Los Angeles Times and other publications, last year Shuldiner established the Institute of Domestic Technology to teach artisanal food ways. He co-organized the brief experiment of the uncertified Altadena Urban farmers market, which featured backyard produce and artisanal prepared food vendors, and derived at least some of its allure from its underground, unpermitted status.

Starting last fall, Shuldiner, 54, worked to organize a real certified farmers market, sanctioned by the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner's office and the state farmers market program. He sought out some of the top local certified farmers market managers as mentors, including Laura Avery of Santa Monica, Greta Dunlap of Beverly Hills and Diana Rodgers of Mar Vista. After what he describes as an excruciating education in the intricacies of bureaucracy, he secured the county and city permits needed for a certified farmers market and used his contacts in the burgeoning urban agriculture scene to enlist new participants.

His drolly named "assistant secretary of urban farming," Elizabeth Bowman, 30, who is writing her master's thesis on the feasibility of urban farming for farmers markets, helped guide novice vendors to obtain the required inspections and paperwork from the county.

Shuldiner and Bowman recruited Reies Flores of the Cityfarm, a 34-year-old teacher who raises eggs from 100 chickens and ducks, mostly of heritage breeds, in his backyard and a nearby lot in Glassell Park. Since high school, he thumbed through poultry catalogs and dreamed of the chickens he'd own some day, he said on a visit last Monday to his site, where crowing roosters provided an alternative soundtrack to the suburban landscape.

Why heritage poultry? "Historic poultry breeds are largely disappearing, and only people like me are keeping them alive," he said. Until recently he sold privately to individuals and never considered farmers markets until he met Bowman through the Urban Agriculture Working Group of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.

Flores also has seven sheep, which he is leasing to a neighbor, Flora Ito, to clear the brush from her oversized backyard. She sees selling the loquats, Seville oranges and avocados from her garden as an opportunity to "learn from and share information with the community, and see where it might lead," she said.

Blaise Delacroix, 55, a television prop master whose specialty is adding the steam to vegetables in commercials, sees the market as a chance to "relieve myself of the excess of my bounty," he said, speaking in the delicious drawl of his native New Orleans, while standing under a heavily loaded Minneola tangelo tree in his Altadena garden. His wife, Rosa Leon, is using her skills as a chemist to make goat milk soap using their herbs, which she sells in the market's well-curated noncertified section, alongside such standouts as Sqirl preserves and Mother Moo Creamery.

Rishi Kumar, 23, who has a computer science degree from UC San Diego, forswore a tech career to establish a model garden at his family's home in suburban Diamond Bar, which he calls the Growing Home. At the Altadena market, he sells herbs and spices such as curry leaf, kaffir lime, oregano, mint and lemongrass, but his main goal is to teach others to replace their lawns with organically grown, water-conserving edible landscaping.

"Right now I don't see making a living selling produce, just a little additional income, although eventually I'd like to get a bigger piece of land," he said

It would be impossible to assemble a market exclusively from backyard growers, and Shuldiner has some respected "usual suspects," such as Kenter Canyon for salad greens and Suncoast for vegetables. But he's managed to find a high proportion of unfamiliar gems, top-notch small organic farms like Shu and Debby Takikawa of the Garden of ... , from Santa Ynez, whose extraordinarily flavorful vegetables, including summer squash, beets, lettuce and potatoes, have created a sensation at farmers markets (more about them soon).

Just across from them is Ellwood Canyon Farms, which displays a gorgeous array of vegetables grown in Goleta. Elser's Country Farm of Yucaipa offers regular red tomatoes now but in a few weeks will boast the widest and most exciting selection of heirloom tomatoes at farmers markets, harvested home-garden ripe and lovingly displayed. Then there's Drake Family Farms of Ontario, which makes excellent artisanal goat cheese; Cynthia Farquhar of Redlands, whose historic family farm specializes in citrus; and Ted Bliss, a fifth-generation avocado grower from Carpinteria.

The Altadena market, which has an attractive setting and good production values (well-designed bags and signs and an alert supporting cast), attracted enthusiastic crowds for its opening, but many markets start strong and fade when the novelty wears off and vendors don't make money. Only time will tell whether Shuldiner is able to match his intelligent design with the mastery of logistical nitty-gritty and market politics.

Could urban farms play a serious role in feeding Los Angeles some day? "That's still a fantasy at this point, but I have this vision of building a network for the future," said Shuldiner.

Altadena farmers market, Loma Alta Park, 600 W. Palm St., 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays.

food@latimes.com