Of the many Southern Californians starting urban farms these days, few have stories more colorful than Brett and Tanya Wyatt of B&T Farm. Brett, 53, was an observant Jew studying geography at UC Davis, then a Buddhist monk in Myanmar, where he managed to flee just before the regime raided his monastery. He then earned a doctorate analyzing organic farming concepts in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he met Tanya, 44, who supervised a farm group and grew mushrooms. A year ago he returned to California to teach computer skills at a public high school in Watts, and they promptly decided to establish an urban farm.
They were able to buy a home in Hacienda Heights cheaply because the previous owner had been shot to death last August in the alley behind the backyard, which was strewn with broken glass. "None of the locals would touch the place, because they thought his spirit was still here," Brett says.
Tanya closely planted the yards surrounding the house with vegetables and spices from her homeland, including galangal, lemongrass, bamboo shoots and banana leaves, as well as crops more mainstream here, such as broccoli, spinach and sunflower sprouts. All are as fresh as can be when they sell at the Monrovia farmers market on Fridays, at Playa Vista on Saturdays and at Newport Beach on Sundays.
But their biggest bet is on oyster mushrooms, which, unlike virtually all other farmers market vendors, they grow themselves from scratch, from mycelia cultured on agar, which they disperse into a medium of sawdust, rice bran and sugar, sheathed in plastic bags. They keep the bags in their living room, next to the mantle, and in a plastic storage room in the backyard.
The whole process is trickier than it seems, because they have to carefully sterilize the medium by steaming it for four hours in a 55-gallon drum to kill all the other molds that might otherwise compete with the mushrooms. If anything goes wrong, the whole batch could be spoiled.
Their next mushroom crop should be ready in a week or so; if all goes well, they intend to start growing other types of mushrooms and triple production.
As one key to their success, they are planning to emphasize the ultra-fresh and ultra-local provenance of their produce.
"It's an experiment in urban farming and marketing," says Brett Wyatt, whose academic work involved looking at sociological issues from a geographic perspective. "Farmers market shoppers are not just buying vegetables, they're buying an idea, the concept of freshness."
Not all shoppers are enticed by the urban farm angle, however, as the Wyatts found when they first started selling at a farmers market, in Orange County, earlier this year. Customers ignored them and flocked to competitors who sold larger quantities cheaper.
"That was a nightmare," Brett Wyatt says. "Nobody really understood what we were doing."
The Wyatts use no synthetic pesticides, just natural neem oil, and had considered becoming certified organic but found that it was impractical. It would have taken three years and cost $1,200 a year, a large portion of their sales. But the real deal-breaker, Wyatt says, was that he couldn't find a source for organic sawdust, which would have been required to certify their mushrooms as organic.
At one market where they were thinking of selling, they happened to pass a mushroom vendor, peeked in the back of her van and saw boxes that said "product of China." (I've seen the same thing, in non-certified sections of farmers markets.)
"No way would we eat those mushrooms," says Brett. "But they retail at $4 a pound. How can I compete with that?" (The Wyatts charge $9 a pound for their oyster mushrooms.)
At the Playa Vista farmers market, they found shoppers and management to be more receptive to their homegrown, pesticide-free ethos. They are starting to see that with the right combination of crops, markets and marketing, they could expand production and make a living doing what they love, Brett Wyatt says.
To the Wyatts, feeling good about what they're doing is their main reason for starting an urban farm: "I want to contribute to farmers markets as they should be," says Brett. "It makes us happy."