What would you do if you had 600 tomato plants and no place to grow them? Sabrina Bohn, who faced that dilemma last May, hit the road and found a home in Santa Paula for her farm, which now raises a wide range of specialty vegetables. She and her partners have made such impressive progress that her Shear Rock Farm is one of the most promising newcomers to farmers markets recently, for the freshness, variety and presentation of its produce.
Her route to her current farm involved several unexpected twists. Bohn, 49, acquired a taste for heirloom tomatoes from her mother's garden while growing up in Hollywood but set aside any horticultural ambitions to work in interior design and as a set painter in the film business.
About five years ago, when set painting jobs became scarce and her unemployment benefits were running out, she took classes in horticulture at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and became inspired by a mentor. She and a friend started a project growing heirloom tomatoes on land provided by the college, which was so productive that she began selling at farmers markets under the name Student Produce.
After three years she was cultivating an acre and a half, and this venture was so successful that an article in a local newspaper caused problems with the college's administration. ("What kind of money are we getting from this?" she says they asked.)
At this time, Bohn also was teaching classes at elementary schools around Los Angeles in a program called Farmer in the Classroom, organized by Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, which runs eight farmers markets. She needed vegetables to take to the classes and wanted to stay in the farmers market arena, so she formed a partnership with a farmer and another vendor.
That didn't work out, leaving her with 600 tomato plants without a home. Finding good agricultural land at an affordable price wasn't easy, and after weeks of driving around searching, she was desperate and about to give up. But one day Bohn stopped for gas on the eastern edge of Santa Paula, in a prime agricultural district of Ventura County, and wondered what was at the end of a road just south of California Highway 126. As fate would have it, she met Raul Barrios riding a Caterpillar tractor.
Barrios had leased 19 acres of a former lemon grove, which had long been fallow, in the flood plain of the Santa Clara River and wanted to get into farming himself. He and Bohn agreed to form a partnership, which they named Shear Rock Farm, after a nearby landmark.
Bohn and Barrios started by planting 3 acres of vegetables, such as beets, carrots, chard, peas and broccoli, focusing particularly on older and unusual varieties. They use no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, and pay great attention to building up their soil with organic compost and manure. But they have not yet been able to afford third-party organic certification, so they can't call their produce "organic," said Bohn on a visit to the farm Wednesday.
Right now they've also got gorgeous lettuces and French sorrel, calendula flowers, radishes and turnips. All are harvested when young and tender, just before sale at farmers markets, which shows in their pristine freshness and vivid flavor. Unlike many farmers market vendors, Bohn and her partners don't carry unsold perishable produce from one market to another; if such items remain at a market's close, they donate them.
Come summer, they will have 45 varieties of heirloom and specialty tomatoes. Some of Bohn's favorites include Black Krim, an old Russian variety with intense flavor; Marmande, an old French beefsteak type; and Fuzzy Peach (a.k.a. Garden Peach), which looks odd but tastes great. Among their other summer specialties are aromatic Charentais melons, a yellow French fillet bean called Soleil and Moroccan squash with deep orange flesh.
Barrios works on the farm on tasks such as welding and irrigation. Bohn is assisted by her Chicago-born husband, Kurt Johnson, 60, a gaffer whom she met in the film business. He is also a glassworker who creates beads, which she makes into necklaces and bracelets she sells at some of her farmers markets.
She uses her skills as an artist and set decorator to put together an attractive display of baskets, tablecloths and small quantities of produce. While other vendors may imitate this "small farm" look, it takes just a few tastes of her vegetables to recognize that Bohn's venture is the real deal.
Later this year she hopes to plant more of her farm's land and to expand her offerings to additional farmers markets. For now, Shear Rock Farm sells Sunday at the Hollywood and Montrose farmers markets; Tuesday at Highland Park; Thursday at Glendale; and Friday at Echo Park.