Harvest and return: Santa Monica goes on

Times Staff Writer

THE last place James Birch or Dennis Peitso wants to be this morning is at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. But that's exactly where they will be. They're farmers, and they have no choice in the matter.

No doubt their feelings are shared by most of the 90 vendors who will, nonetheless, be there, only one week after a car crash that claimed the lives of 10 customers and left many connected to the market deeply shaken.

"I'd like to take a couple of months off and not go back to the market for a while, but that's not going to happen," Birch said earlier this week. "Our fruits and our vegetables are not going to stop growing, and we can't stop picking them. And once we pick them, we have to ask ourselves 'What am I going to do with all this now?' We have to sell them because we certainly can't store them."

And so he will be heading back over the Grapevine this morning, his truck loaded with watermelons, tomatoes, cucumbers, some Elberta peaches, eggplant, golden nectar plums and Persian mulberries, to what was a scene of horror just one week ago.

This is the prime time of year for California farmers, when they make the bulk of their annual income. Birch figures he makes 40% of his money from July through September.

"We're at the peak. This is when we're putting money in the bank," said Peitso, who sells herbs and lettuces he grows in Tarzana and Agoura at the stand called Maggie's Farm. "This is when we're putting the money in the bank that will carry us through winter, when we're barely making it through."

Few farmers can afford to take the financial loss that would result from missing a day. Market manager Laura Avery says her office is calling all farmers to find out whether they are coming. So far, she says, everyone has said yes.

Birch and Peitso also were among 50 farmers who showed up at the smaller regular market Saturday, about 40% of whom sell on Wednesdays too. The mood was somber, with customers and farmers checking in on one another, relieved that each was unhurt. Trucks were parked at either end of Arizona Avenue, serving as unofficial traffic barricades. And there was a nearly hourlong memorial service.

"It was really hard to go," Peitso said of the Saturday market. "I was just utterly exhausted when I finished. I couldn't wait to get home and collapse. It was a deeply emotional experience. People come up to you, their faces filled with recognition and relief and say, 'Oh, it's so good to see you here and you're not hurt.' And I tell them it's the other way around. It was the customers who got hurt."

The stand for Birch's Flora Bella Farms is on Arizona Avenue between 3rd and 2nd streets, directly in the path of the car that careened through the market, killing 10 and injuring dozens. He was not hurt in the crash, but the carnage was all around him. A picture in The Times the next day showed him sitting by his truck, stunned and surveying the ruins of his stand.

"I have never, never been involved in anything like that before," Birch said. "I've seen an accident before where somebody's gotten injured but nothing like that. I was in shock after it happened. I was so frightened. It was so terrible and so sad."

Birch didn't even return to the farm, located near the town of Three Rivers at the foot of the Sierras, until Saturday night. Instead, he retreated to the house his family owns in Culver City. "I couldn't drive," he said. "I just didn't want to see anybody."

Saturday morning his wife, Bettina, and son Joshua came down to Santa Monica from the farm with the weekend's produce and helped work the stand. He managed to stay for the morning, but had to leave before lunch.

"It's hard for me when people come up and start talking about 'Why did this person do this? " he said. "I snapped at a few people and that's when I left. I just had to get out of there."

Both men say last Wednesday will be with them for a long time, in the memories of what they saw and in their attempts to make some sense of what happened.

"I've been thinking about it a lot," said Birch. "I've been waking up throughout the night thinking about it. When I'm not busy during the day I think about it, several times an hour, if not more. Mostly I'm trying to make sense of it, trying to figure out why it happened. I'm thinking about the people who got injured and how they are."

The routine of farming is one thing that helps.

"Work itself is a therapy," said Peitso. "It's mindless, which is good. It has its own pattern. I can do it automatically, by rote. In that respect it has a meditational aspect to it. It's comforting to lose yourself and to lose those images for a while."

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