BEYOND the KIWI : Small Farmers Cash In on California's Appetite for Nouvelle Produce

Judith Sims is a free-lance writer who specializes in food and gardening.

MOST PEOPLE THINK OF the American farm as vast acres of gently undulating land planted with rows of corn or wheat, cultivated by tractors, harvested by combines--and threatened with extinction. But not in Southern California. Here, farming is a healthy industry, partly because a select group of growers has learned how to reap hefty profits from tiny pieces of land: They grow unusual foods. On suburban plots, hillsides, even gullies--wherever the condo /shopping mall /industrial park developers have yet to stake claim--these farmers raise specialty crops to supply a growing demand for offbeat produce.

"The growth of specialty produce in California has been phenomenal," says Roberta Cook, an agricultural economist at UC Davis. In the last few years, Cook adds, shipments of specialty vegetables in the United States grew at an average annual rate of 13%, contrasted with 2% for traditional vegetables. And specialty produce now represents about 5% of the total national produce volume.

The following growers share a fresh approach to growing food and selling it. They somehow absorb the high cost of irrigation, outwit the elements and explore alternative marketing ploys for their unfamiliar crops. Some sell exclusively to restaurants, others frequent farmers' markets and a few ship to foreign ports, but what they all have in common is uncommon produce.

Ten years ago, how many people had heard of the kiwi? Who would have thought to eat baby beets? So pay attention. These may be the foods of the future.

FEIJOAS AND PEPINOS

John Swift and his family live in jaw-dropping splendor in a rose stucco mansion atop a Los Osos hill, overlooking Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, and it takes a mule or a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get there. In this rugged Shangri-La, Swift, 34, is growing fruits that many people have never heard of: the pepino, feijoa (pronounced feh-JO-uh) and yacon (yuh-KAHN). He also grows the now-familiar kiwi and plans to plant a few fields of loquat and white sapote (sah-PO-tay). All are growing in an area usually considered too far north for subtropical edibles.

"The ocean air keeps temperatures above freezing most of the time," Swift says, but he does have to deal with stiff winds that whip through his canyons with a vengeance, flattening unprotected young plants. Swift, who bought the ranch while he was studying international agriculture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, owns 600 acres but cultivates only 40 because water is scarce. Longhorn cattle graze on the rest.

He started farming in 1982, planting eight acres of feijoas, small Brazilian trees commonly known as pineapple guava and often used as landscape plants in Southern California. The fruit is small, about the size of a large kiwi, with a tart-bitter green skin. Two years ago, he branched out and started growing the pepino, native to Chile and a relative of the tomato and the pepper. It is teardrop-shaped, with yellow and purple skin and flesh that is pale, sweet and melon-like. "The pepino is hot right now," Swift says. "It looks so pretty, there's no trouble marketing it."

The yacon, from Ecuador, looks like a lumpy brown potato and has the crisp texture of jicama and a slightly sweet flavor. Swift, who became one of the country's few commercial growers of yacon last year, says, "Taste testing has been very good, but there's some difficulty marketing it because it's not appealing to look at."

Swift's company, Swift Subtropicals, along with about 80 other members of the Feijoa Growers of California, has had to create a demand for the unfamiliar produce, a process that involves in-market taste tests, brochures and recipes, a feijoa video, even stickers instructing consumers how to use the fruit: "Peel and eat," for instance. "We had a zero market five years ago, and now feijoas are found in Canada and in cities all across the U.S." Swift may eventually reap about $300,000 annually from his 16 acres of feijoas (12 acres are producing now), and some of that money may come from far away. Swift recently returned from Hong Kong, where his feijoas dazzled the Chinese, he says. "They ate them, skin and all."

PURPLE ARTICHOKES AND RHUBARB

Thirty-nine-year-old Mike Horwath is perhaps the most traditional farmer on this short list, growing row crops and selling them to wholesalers. He studied agronomy at Cal State Fresno, then joined his father's wholesale produce-shipping business in Los Angeles. Today, his company, TMY Farms, is one of only two growers of rhubarb in all of California and one of only five growers of Big Heart purple artichokes in the state.

Horwath's artichokes have more leaves and slightly bigger hearts than their green counterparts--they look beautiful and taste even better. From Horwath's point of view, the purple variety has another major advantage: Unlike the perennial green artichoke, the purple crop is reseeded every year, grows for five or six months and then is turned under for a new crop. This allows purple artichokes to be in markets when the green ones are out of season.

With Big Heart artichokes and Cherry Red rhubarb, Horwath says, "there's really no competition to speak of, and in Southern California, that's the kind of business you have to be in. You cannot compete with Salinas or Mexico; water is the major expense, land is second." He has just purchased 155 acres near Valley Center, not far from Escondido; later this year, he will plant rhubarb on 100 acres and purple artichokes on the rest. Those 100 rhubarb acres will make Horwath responsible for 10% of all U.S.-grown rhubarb.

Rhubarb, long popular in the East and Midwest but only beginning to show some action in Southern California, may be Horwath's favorite crop. He wants to take it "all the way into pies and jams." To that end, he sells pies (made by a bakery to his specifications) for $7.50 apiece every Saturday at a coastal farmers' market. "We sold 70 pies in one day," says Horwath's 17-year-old son, Jason. But Horwath's rhubarb dreams extend far beyond Southern California. "I think there's a tremendous market for fresh rhubarb pies," he says. "We could probably even do the East Coast, using refrigerated trucks. Why not?"

EXOTIC BANANAS

Where U.S. 101 hugs the ocean, between Ventura and Santa Barbara, waves roll up to the highway on the west; on the other side is the tiny town of La Conchita--and Doug Richardson's Seaside Banana Garden, with its fruit ripening under bright blue plastic hoods.

"I have seven acres here, seven acres in Carpinteria, altogether 6,000 individual clumps and 20,000 bearing stems, 50 varieties, and it's all organic," Richardson says. Because of the climate and rocky but rich soil, Richardson's bananas are less susceptible to fungi, borers and nematodes than their South American counterparts, many of which are dipped in industrial-strength fungicides before being shipped to the United States.

Richardson, 40, grew up in Manhattan Beach, but says, "I was always interested in agriculture since I was in college at UC Santa Barbara (studying geography), and I knew I wanted to have a fruit crop." The tremendous cost of developing an orchard kept him from realizing his dream until four years ago. "I had a landscape business, and the banana became a hobby. I realized we had the opportunity and the right climate here."

Richardson and his family live in La Conchita, and he operates his business from a dome-shaped office next to his house. He sells his bananas to independent grocery stores in Carpinteria and Santa Barbara and has just opened a roadside stand in La Conchita. But anyone anywhere can mail-order a 5 1/2-pound sampler pack of five to seven varieties of bananas, depending on the season. The Manzano variety has almost crunchy flesh and a tart apple flavor when raw and a pineapple taste when cooked, and the Blue Java or Ice Cream banana starts out a luscious silvery blue, then ripens to yellow, has an almost foamy texture around a firm core and a rich and smooth flavor like English clotted cream. Besides fresh-fruit shipments, Richardson offers 40 varieties of banana corms--offshoots from parent roots, like big onions--for planting in one's own back yard.

Although his bootstrap operation has not reached full capacity, Richardson is confident that he has chosen the right business: "The banana is the most popular fruit in this country," he says, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. "Americans eat about 25 1/2 pounds per person per year."

OYSTER MUSHROOMS

Perched on a foothill in Twin Oaks Valley, north of Escondido, Golden Gourmet Mushrooms occupies two bunker-like white buildings. "People around here think this is some sort of biotech lab," says Michael Murphy, 40, the director of marketing. They aren't far off. Inside one of the bunkers is a laboratory in which the company propagates oyster mushrooms. Mushroom tissue cultures are combined with sterile milo grain, which feeds the mushrooms as they develop; then both are mixed with pasteurized straw that is shaped into logs. Suspended in 10 temperature-controlled rooms, the logs produce about 3,000 pounds of mushrooms per day for about seven weeks. "Some people grow these more cheaply, but for only part of the year. Our system is year-round," Murphy says.

More than 70% of Golden Gourmet's output is exported out of state, mostly to Japan and the East Coast. Lest this seem like quite a fuss over a little fungus, Murphy says the domestic mushroom market has expanded enormously and will probably reach 1 billion pounds annually by the year 2000. "Right now, it's about 750 million a year, and we produce about 1 million of that."

BABY LETTUCE

Under the power lines in Tarzana, on a hill between cottages, are seven acres of growing beds outlined with hoops and shrouded with opaque row covers. Inside these tiny Quonset huts is a growing industry: Andrea Crawford's baby lettuce.

Crawford has been hugely successful with small gardens for nine years, ever since she stopped cooking for Alice Waters' Chez Panisse and started growing lettuce for the influential restaurant in her Berkeley back yard. In addition to the power-line acreage she leases, Crawford currently farms a friend's Encino back yard (she just bought a house in La Crescenta--which she will not farm) and is searching for a plot near the beach.

She also hopes to begin growing tomatoes on 10 acres near Simi, and she is still looking for a warehouse to accommodate plans for a home-delivery catalogue that would operate "like a subscription business, with certain things like salad greens and herbs always available, and other things that would be seasonal."

Meanwhile, her Kenter Canyon Farms supplies greenery to restaurants such as Spago, Trumps, Angeli I and II, 72 Market Street, La Serre and Chardonnay and to the Bel-Air Hotel. "Business is three times as big as it was two years ago," she says. She harvests about 200 pounds of lettuce per day, six days a week, and ships much of it daily to New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and Miami. "I'm also buying from (other) farmers and brokering their organic produce to the restaurants locally. I've been able to procure wonderful tomatoes, fruits and green garlic."

Crawford, 32, was a dedicated practitioner of organic gardening before most people knew what it meant. "Now with all the food scares lately, I'm hearing from people I never expected to hear from, asking if I have any more of 'that organic stuff.' "

MACADAMIA NUTS

Tom Cooper, the self-described "macadamia king," reigns over Rancho Nuez in Fallbrook: 4 1/2 acres of steep slopes and gullies, 365 macadamia trees and other assorted nut and fruit trees. Last year, Cooper, along with other macadamia growers from San Diego to Santa Cruz, helped California produce 300,000 pounds of macadamias in the shell; Hawaii grew 44 million. "But we're gaining on them," Cooper says.

The macadamia, native to Australia, has long been treasured as the supreme nut, the priciest and, now, the trendiest. Mrs. Fields' macadamia-nut cookies, Special Edition macadamia ice cream and spiffy desserts at fancy restaurants, such as Michael's in Santa Monica, have only enlarged the nut's reputation and raised its price.

That's fine with Cooper, 60, who is involved in all aspects of the macadamia business: He grows and processes nuts, sells plants, hybridizes new varieties, supplies seed to prospective growers and markets his own nuts and candy.

He has a local confectionery make clusters of nuts with white, milk and dark chocolate, and he is "playing in the kitchen" himself, making molasses bars with raisins and toasted macadamias. As his eyes roll heavenward, he warns: "Mrs. Fields, move over!"

JOHN SWIFT'S SHRIMP FEIJOA

1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 tablespoons butter

2 or 3 feijoas, peeled and sliced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint

1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

Salt and pepper to taste

Saute the shrimp in the butter about 1 minute; add the feijoas, mint and ginger and saute for just a few seconds more. Season to taste. Makes 4 servings.

MIKE HORWATH'S CACTUS CORN ARTICHOKE SALAD

4 purple artichokes

3 medium ears of corn, shucked, silks removed and cut from the cob to make about 1 1/2 cups of kernels

2 8-inch nopales, or prickly pear cactus pads (available in Latino markets)

1/2 cup diced red pepper

1 teaspoon salt

Mustard Vinaigrette*

2 tablespoons toasted, chopped pine nuts

Bring 3 to 4 inches of water to boil in large pot; add artichokes and cover, simmering about 30 minutes or until tender. Drain and let cool slightly. Trim off most of the leaves, forming a cup, and remove chokes from artichoke hearts. Set artichokes aside.

Wearing rubber gloves, carefully trim spines from the cactus pads and cut into 1/4-inch dice (should be about 1 1/2 cups). Bring two quarts of water to boil with salt in a medium saucepan. Add corn and boil until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, saving the water. Return water to pan and bring to boil again. Add cactus pieces. After water returns to boil a third time (about 30 seconds), drain cactus and toss under cold running water until syrup no longer runs out and the pads are not gummy to the touch.

Toss corn, cactus, red pepper and Mustard Vinaigrette gently but thoroughly. Put salad in artichoke cups and sprinkle pine nuts on top. Can be served warm or chilled. Makes 4 servings.

*Mustard Vinaigrette

3 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

4 teaspoons Pommery mustard (or any grainy mustard)

2 tablespoons oil

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh tarragon

Stir together vinegar, salt, pepper and mustard; add the oil slowly, whisking all the while. Add tarragon.

DOUG RICHARDSON'S BANANA-LENTIL SOUP

1 cups diced cooked ham

1/4 cup olive oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

4 celery stalks, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup tomato paste

6 cups chicken stock or canned chicken broth

5 cups water

1 pound (about 2 cups) lentils, rinsed

Salt and pepper

4 ripe Manzano bananas (if using ordinary supermarket bananas, choose underripe fruit)

In large, heavy-bottomed pan, fry ham in oil for 2-3 minutes. Add onion, celery and garlic and cook until soft but not brown. Stir in the tomato paste and cook another 2 minutes. Pour in the stock and water, bring to a boil and add lentils. Simmer, covered, about an hour. Add salt and pepper to taste. About 10 minutes before serving, peel bananas, slice into 2-inch chunks and drop into soup. Simmer another 10 minutes. Serves 10.

HEARTY OYSTER MUSHROOM AND OLIVE SOUP

1 1/2 cups milk

1 cup half-and-half

3 tablespoons flour

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 pound oyster mushrooms, sliced (about 3 1/4 cups)

3 tablespoons butter

1/3 cup pitted ripe olives, sliced

1/4 cup dry Sherry

Salt

1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese

Combine milk, half-and-half, flour and pepper; whisk until smooth. Saute mushrooms in butter in large saucepan oven until tender. Add milk mixture and olives to mushrooms and cook over medium heat 5 minutes or until thickened and bubbly. Add Sherry and cook 2 to 3 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt. Spoon into bowls and top with cheese. Makes 4 servings.

ANDREA CRAWFORD'S BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped nasturtium petals

1 teaspoon chopped chervil

Combine vinegar and shallots. Gradually whisk in olive oil. Add nasturtium petals and chervil. Makes 1 cup.

Note: Proportions of vinegar and oil can be varied depending upon desired taste.

TOM COOPER'S MOLASSES MACADAMIA NUT BISCOTTI

1/3 cup safflower oil

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup light molasses

1 egg

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup raisins

Sugar

Beat together the oil, sugar, molasses and egg; in a separate bowl mix the flour, baking soda, cloves, ginger, cinnamon and salt. Combine wet and dry ingredients; add nuts and raisins and mix well. Cut dough in half; roll each half into a log about 2 inches in diameter and about 12 or 14 inches long. Sprinkle sugar (and any fine bits of macadamia nuts) on a large piece of foil; roll the logs back and forth on the sugar and nuts until they are completely covered. Place logs in jellyroll pan; bake at 350 degrees for about 12 minutes. When done, the logs will have flattened out. Remove from oven and cut the logs into 1 1/2x3-inch slices. Place cookies back in oven about 5 minutes or until they have dried and are crisp. Place slices on rack to cool. Makes about 40 cookies.

Food styling: Alice M. Hart and Julie Madonia; props courtesy of Pavilion Place, Pasadena.

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