There are pocket parks, even pocket battleships, so why not pocket farmers markets? Such is the model -- small markets targeted for a particular niche -- developed by Howell Tumlin, executive director of the Southland Farmers' Market Assn., which at its peak linked many major local markets. For the last year Tumlin has been working as a consultant and developer of new markets, mostly for Kaiser Permanente hospitals.
Last Friday he opened a market in his native Topanga Canyon, an affluent community with many residents passionate for local and organic produce, and thus an ideal locale, except for one detail: Its population is a fraction of the 25,000 typically considered necessary to support a farmers market. No certified farmers market has existed there, but Tumlin maintains that his venture, with just eight or nine growers, compact stands and a limited selection, can be viable. Judging by the enthusiasm of shoppers at the market's opening, he may have a shot.
"I travel the world in search of farmers markets, and this is so wonderful to have one here in my backyard," said Barbara
, a local customer. "I hope people will support it, because otherwise it won't last."
With many contacts to draw upon, Tumlin has assembled a blue-chip roster of growers, including McGrath Family Farms, with vegetables from Camarillo; Maggie's Farm, with salad greens from Agoura Hills; Lily's Eggs of Fillmore; and Etheridge Farms, with citrus and stone fruit from Dinuba. Two other stands will start at today's market: Santiago Farms, a berry vendor from Nipomo; and Will and Jeanne Stehly's Sycamore Hill Ranch, which grows citrus and avocados in Fillmore.
The Maggie's Farm stand also sells for Weiser Family Farms, which, just in time for the Lakers' playoff run, has been offering a potato with purple and gold skin, nicknamed "Lakers Bakers." It's actually an experimental numbered selection from a potato breeder (whom Alex Weiser declined to name so as not to tip off competitors), the Weisers grow on three-quarters of an acre in Lamont, southeast of Bakersfield. The distinctive coloration is on only the skin, so the flesh is standard beige. Baked in foil the potatoes are floury. But when sliced into quarter-inch-thick roundels, lightly coated with olive oil and roasted at 400 degrees for 50 minutes, they turn golden brown, crunchy on the outside and are very flavorful.
The McGrath stand has black radishes, an ancient type with dusky skin and very firm, pungent white flesh, almost as spicy as horseradish. It was a favorite in cold climates like that of Russia, where it was valued because it stores about as long as any vegetable; through the 19th century it was widely grown in the United States, but is now mostly found in a few markets that cater to customers of Central and Eastern European extraction, many of them Jewish.
My grandmother Sadie, who was born in Russia in 1890 and immigrated to live on New York's Lower East Side, would serve black radishes two ways, according to my uncle Melvin: cut into wedge-shaped quadrants, with a little kosher salt to bring out the flavor; and shredded, raw, with some
(chicken fat) to be spooned on top. "She never cooked them," Mel said.
Amelia Saltsman, a cookbook author who was present at the market opening as the "resident expert," bought a bunch and prepared them three ways: shredded, raw, marinated with olive oil, lemon, salt, and pepper, and piled on buttered black bread; sautéed briefly in a bit of butter with salt and black pepper; and roasted with olive oil and salt. "Cooking definitely softened the bitter flavors and brought out a bit of nuttiness," she reported. "I think they would be nice mixed with potatoes and carrots."
All the vendors the first week were well-known, established farms, but Tumlin and his site manager, Elise Mallove, say that they intend to recruit high-quality organic growers from the Topanga area. Today's market, if all goes well, will see the debut of one of these, Skyline Organic Farms, located just two miles away from the market site, and operated since 1991 by Stefan and Kathryn Hagopian, an osteopath and an MD, respectively.
Located on 15 hilly acres with a vista of Saddle Peak, this certified biodynamic and organic farm is gorgeous -- and inspiring because of its devotion to the spirit as well as to the letter of organic farming. Aside from a 5-acre wine grape vineyard, the Hagopians grow a varied assortment of crops, including loquats, mulberries, lychees, longans, jujubes, sapotes, citrus, cherimoyas, figs and macadamias. They rely on Baby Doll sheep to keep down weeds, and chickens to eat worms; they take meticulous care of their soil, and spray only compost teas, applying none of the nonsynthetic but toxic substances sometimes permitted by national organic standards. So far they have sold chiefly to a few restaurants and organic groceries; this will be their first farmers market.
"My guiding principle is to find out if it's possible to grow food here under rigorous organic standards, and get the farm to pay for itself given the economics of our system, which favors cheap industrial food," Stefan said.
Pine Tree Circle shopping center, 120 S. Topanga Canyon Blvd., 8 a.m. to noon Friday.
The Tapia Bros. farm stand on Havenhurst Avenue just north of the 101 freeway in Encino has for decades been a favorite of Valley dwellers for its corn, and other offerings such as strawberries, tomatoes and green beans. These couldn't be more local, grown right there in the Sepulveda Basin, on 65 acres that can't be used for housing because it is subject to flooding. Although the Tapia family experimented with farmers markets many years ago, and tried selling at a few venues last year, they never really plunged into this outlet, because they assumed that the world would continue to beat a path to their door.
Recently, however, the increasing success of farmers markets has drawn away some of the customers who used to buy at the stand, says Tom Tapia, who therefore has decided to start selling this week at the Canoga Park, Beverly Hills, and Santa Clarita markets; they'll be at Thousand Oaks in a few weeks too.