Farmers Markets: Downtown L.A. gets a Sunday market

Murray Family Farms sells Diamond Muscat and Thomcord grapes, berries and stone fruit grown in Arvin.
(David Karp)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

Flanked by low-income housing, recently renovated lofts, offices and art galleries, the Historic Downtown Los Angeles farmers market, which opened two weeks ago, is a study in contrasts. Rehabilitated skid row denizens wash away stains in front of a new ballet school, while classically ornamented white buildings loom above tourists, hipsters and longtime residents of diverse ethnicities and incomes.

As downtown’s population swelled from 18,000 to 50,000 over the last decade, the residents have been “severely underserved in the way of fresh produce and healthy foods,” said Blair Besten, executive director of the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District, which responded by sponsoring the new market.

Three other downtown farmers markets operate during the week, mainly serving office workers at lunch, but this is the first weekend venue, aimed at residents, to gain traction. (Last year a farmers market ran briefly before the operators realized how much time, money and expertise it required.)

Besten asked several farmers market operators for proposals, but they either weren’t interested or wanted more than $50,000, she said. She contacted Laura Avery, supervisor of the Santa Monica markets, who referred her to Howell Tumlin of Southland Farmers’ Market Assn., a nonprofit mutual benefit association that had represented up to 25 independent markets but now runs 10 of its own markets. He agreed to take the job, no money down.


Because of downtown’s dodgy reputation, many of the growers he invited were skeptical that a farmers market would succeed, but he managed to assemble a decent roster of 12 produce and six prepared-food vendors. He tried to appeal to the district’s low-income clientele by accepting electronic benefit payments and to more affluent professionals by offering organic produce and luxury pet food.

Anchoring the vegetable section are Gaytan of Mira Loma and Denny’s Organic of Nipomo, while Moua Chen Retchanee, a Hmong family from Fresno, offers a broad range of Asian produce, including long eggplant, yam greens, Thai chiles, and lemongrass. Murray Family Farms of Arvin has Maru rabbiteye blueberries, from a different species than common blueberries, with a distinctive musky flavor, as well as Diamond muscat grapes, small but very sweet and flavorful.

Tenerelli Orchards of Littlerock, the gold standard of stone fruit growers, has July Flame peaches this weekend, a 1999 variety with firm yellow flesh and intense flavor, likely derived from a nectarine parent — an example of how good modern peach varieties can be if well grown and harvested properly ripe. (The vendor, Roberto Ramirez, worked for 31 years for Scattaglia Farms, a competing farm that recently folded; his appearance under a Tenerelli banner seems as incongruous as Steve Nash’s in a Lakers uniform.)

In a strategy increasingly used by managers to augment the offerings of a starter market, several vendors cohabit: the Lily’s Eggs stand also has Dates by DaVall and figs from the desert, while stone fruit from Ryan Metzler of Fresno (Fruita del Sol) shares a stall with citrus from Atkins Nursery of Fallbrook.

Naturally, the new market can’t compete in size or quality with the top long-established venues, but it does offer a convenience to downtown residents, many of whom moved here to drive less. Said Alec Mitchell, 36, who lives nearby and sometimes takes the subway to the Hollywood market, “It’s fantastic to have all this fresh produce right here.”

Historic Downtown Los Angeles farmers market, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays, 5th Street between Spring Street and Broadway.

A plum with a past

From the Kelsey plum’s unremarkable appearance — heart-shaped, average in size — there is little indication of its historical importance as the first Asian plum grown in California. Until 1870, only European plum varieties were cultivated here, but in that year a Mr. Hough of Vacaville, which was then one of the leading plum-growing areas of the state, imported plum trees from Japan through the U.S. consul, paying $10 each. A nurseryman in Berkeley, John Kelsey, bought the stock in 1874, and when the variety started to be widely propagated in the 1880s, another nurseryman named the variety Kelsey.


It was larger and firmer than most European plums and soon caught the eye of a newcomer to California, Luther Burbank, who started importing other plum varieties from Japan, which he named Abundance, Burbank and Satsuma. He bred Japanese plums and sometimes crossed them with native American plums to create varieties such as Wickson (probably a daughter of Kelsey), Beauty and Santa Rosa. By the early 20th century, Asian plums largely displaced European kinds as fresh-market shipping varieties.

Like many early Asian plum varieties, Kelsey typically has a cavity next to the lower part of the seed, called a gum pocket. It is unusual in passing through three different color stages, depending on ripeness: green, firm and rather mild, a state preferred by many of East Asian heritage; yellow, softer and sweeter; and occasionally red, at which point it is very sweet and practically a bag of juice.

Kelsey’s excellent dessert quality and extended season — typically mid-July to early August — soon led to its becoming a leading commercial variety, and as recently as 1994 it ranked in the top 10 grown in California. Over the last decade, however, it has approached commercial extinction, supplanted by larger and firmer varieties that shipped and stored like rocks. (Just recently a new Kelsey Plum has been making headlines: That’s the name of one of the top high school women’s basketball players, a point guard at La Jolla Country Day High School.)

Today virtually the only place one can find the historic Kelsey is in home gardens and at farmers markets, where Arnulfo Garcia, K&K Ranch and Truman Kennedy are some of the vendors who offer it. Kennedy will have Kelseys grown in Dinuba this weekend at Santa Monica’s downtown and Main Street markets, and perhaps next Wednesday in Santa Monica.