Maybe what attracts customers to the Weiser Family Farms stand at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market is the rainbow of potatoes in different shapes and sizes: Russian Banana, Rose Finn, Red Thumb and Purple Peruvian, some of them so fresh their skins rub off between your fingers. Maybe it’s the Bloomsdale spinach with its fleshy leaves so sweet you can eat them raw without a taste of tannin. It could be the fuzzy green almonds. Certainly the dozens of buckets of sweet-smelling lilacs don’t hurt.
Whatever it is that draws them, shoppers crowd around the stand, picking out produce and paying for it. And almost everyone -- from “civilian” food lovers to chefs -- stops for a word or two with Alex Weiser, though there is seldom time for much more than that.
“Wednesdays tend to be like a hockey game around here,” Weiser says. He wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, this half-day madhouse is the linchpin of his family’s business.
And a business is exactly what it is. Though the popular image of a farmers market grower may be of a dusty, overall-clad geezer handing over his crops one piece at a time, the reality is often entirely different.
For the Weisers, favorites of Southern California cooks for more than 20 years, farmers markets are just one part of a business that grosses more than $1 million a year. That may sound like a huge amount, but expenses eat up most of it -- 75% to 80% just to get the stuff to market, not including how much it costs to grow the crops.
Most impressive, at a time when the odds seem ever more stacked against small farmers, the Weisers are able to help support four families and more than a dozen employees. To do it, they have to be creative -- and not just in their farming. As a result, they and others like them are beginning to change the way the business of agriculture is conducted.
Traditional commercial agriculture is predicated on growing the greatest possible amount of food for the lowest possible price. At this it has succeeded to an almost unimaginable extent. Americans spend less of their paychecks on food than any other industrialized nation -- 11% -- less than half of what our grandparents spent before World War II.
But this success has come at a cost, both to producers and consumers. For farmers, it has meant operating at such razor-thin profit margins that they are faced with a stark choice between getting big enough to take advantage of economies of scale and going broke.
A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that farmers earn only about 20% of the retail cost of the crops they grow.
For shoppers, it has meant food that no longer has the flavor they remember. Commercial agriculture rewards farmers for growing more crops; there are few incentives to grow crops that taste better.
Indeed, even a glance at how produce gets from farm to market is enough to explain how this works. Traditionally, farmers grow only one or two types of crops. They harvest them, and then drop them off at packing plants, where their fruits and vegetables are mixed with those of dozens of other farmers who grow the same things.
These pooled products then work their way through the supply chain, from packing shed to distributor to supermarket, oftentimes with even more steps in between.
Sometime later, the farmer will get a statement telling him how much he was paid for the crops (and sometimes, even, how much he owes -- packing and sorting can actually cost more than the crops were sold for). From this amount, he subtracts the costs of planting and growing the crops, and then figures out where he stands.
But farmers markets allow the farmers not only to earn the full sales price of their crops, but also to be rewarded for growing fruits and vegetables that have better flavor.
On the other hand, it is forcing them to rethink how they do business. Now, growing and harvesting is only the beginning of their work.
Which brings us back to the Weiser stand at the Santa Monica market. Here, Alex Weiser keeps up a steady patter with the customers who flock to the tables. Liberally salted among the home cooks buying food to fix for their families’ dinners are professionals. There are chefs such as Josiah Citrin of Melisse, Joe Miller of Joe’s Restaurant and Mark Gold of Cafe Pinot. And there is a surprising number of wholesalers who sell to restaurants and supermarkets -- representatives from companies such as FreshPoint, LA Specialty, Frieda’s Inc. and Melissa’s.
Gwen Kvavli Gulliksen, former chef at the Getty Center and now with restaurant produce supplier Harvest Sensations, brings by students visiting from the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Evolving customer base
Indeed, although the farmers market is at the core of the Weisers’ business, it is these professionals who make up the bulk of their sales. Dan Weiser, Alex’s brother, estimates that sales to restaurants and wholesalers account for 60% to 65% of the farm’s business. And he says he’d like to raise that number to 90%, an idea that makes Alex noticeably uncomfortable.
Though the Weisers’ business had been evolving over the years, it accelerated three years ago when Dan -- who has an MBA from USC and was a sales executive at Disney -- joined in. Though most farmers do business based on gut instinct, Dan insists on trying to quantify everything, from what sells best at which markets to how much they spend on gas to get there.
“Each of us has our own talents,” he says. “I’m an organization freak and I want to try to systematize everything. I’m almost there.”
In addition to the brothers, there is their father, Sid (he’s wearing a sombrero on their packing cartons), mother Raquel, and sister Esther. Together with their employees, they work three farms in the Lucerne Valley and the Tehachapi area totaling roughly 200 acres. That’s half the size of the average farm in the state and a third of the national average.
The Weisers and their employees sell their crops at 16 farmers markets in Southern California (including seven on Sundays and five on Saturdays). That’s a lot, but it is less than half the number of markets they were at three years ago. While a good day at a big market such as Santa Monica can mean thousands of dollars, that is far from the rule.
“There were markets where we were making $100 or $200 a week,” Alex says. “That means we were probably losing $200 or $300 after you pay for the gas and the labor and everything else. This is a business.”
Actually, says Dan, despite slashing the number of markets where they sell, the amount of money they make from the farmers market part of the business has stayed about the same. He estimates that is around $400,000 a year, but quickly adds that that figure is before expenses.
Figure in the cost of selling at the markets -- Dan estimates 75% to 80% -- and the result is only a little more than what they’d make at wholesale. Add in the cost of growing the crops, and the amount dwindles further.
“If you’re a mom-and-pop operation, you could make a living on that, but we’re trying to support four families.”
In fact, 41-year-old Alex, despite being co-owner of 170 acres of farmland, could be considered homeless. Partly because of finances and partly because of the demanding travel required to manage three farms and the markets, he divides his time among a borrowed room at his parents’ modest farmhouse in Lucerne, a room reclaimed from a barn in Tehachapi more than 100 miles away, and a room in a home owned by longtime farm employee Kinny Jung near downtown L.A.
The business’ transition hasn’t been without friction. In particular, the Weisers decided to increase sales to wholesalers only after heated discussion. “That’s the thing I get into shouting arguments with my father about,” Dan says. “One time he told me, ‘You’re just in it for the money.’ I said, ‘Well, kinda; I am trying to make a living.’ He said, ‘I’m in it to feed the world.’ Hopefully, we can do both.”
It all developed pretty naturally. Chefs would shop at their market stands. Then they started phoning in orders in advance to pick up at the market, so they could be sure they’d get what they wanted. Then some chefs started asking the Weisers to deliver. Because they didn’t have the trucks or manpower to do that, they’d arrange with the restaurant’s normal produce purveyor to pick up and make the delivery. And then that purveyor would ask about selling their produce to other clients. Pretty soon the Weisers were selling to about a dozen wholesale companies, and their produce was showing up at high-end supermarkets around the country.
“The word we used for it at Disney was ‘synergy,’ ” Dan says. “Seriously, that’s what it is. We couldn’t do restaurants or wholesale without the farmers markets. And if we were doing just farmers markets, we wouldn’t be able to make enough money to keep going. It’s hard to make it as a small farmer today; you have to use every tool you can.”
Furthermore, because of the reputation they’ve built at farmers markets, the Weisers are able to charge premium prices for their produce even when they sell it through the wholesalers. In fact, Alex says he sometimes can get better prices for his melons from them than he can at the farmers markets. The next step might be to develop packaging so the products would appear at retail under the Weiser label.
In the last three years, Dan says, the farm’s total sales have nearly tripled.
When the Weisers talk about going broke farming, it is not just theoretical. The family got into agriculture in 1976 when Sid retired from his job as a gang counselor at Garfield High School in Alhambra. He had always wanted to farm, so when he learned of a 160-acre apple orchard for sale in Tehachapi, he jumped on it.
He soon wished he hadn’t. “I bought it because I didn’t know anything about farming, I just wanted to do it,” Sid says. “After about five years, we nearly went bankrupt.”
“We had two straight spring frosts, and the stuff we did harvest, we didn’t make much on,” Alex says. “We’d take it to the packing shed and they’d beat you down for a buck. We were really passionate about what we were growing. They thought that was kind of funny.”
The Weisers sold that land in 1981 and traded the family home in Rosemead for a smaller, 83-acre farm in the area. Not long after, they bought an 87-acre farm in the Lucerne Valley, north of Big Bear (today they also farm about 40 leased acres in Tehachapi).
They started going to the brand-new farmers markets. At first, there were just three: Santa Monica, Pacoima and Gardena. “We learned pretty quickly that this wasn’t a bad deal,” Alex says. “Going the regular way, we might not make enough money to cover the costs of packing and production. But what I was doing was bringing in cash.”
Selling at the markets changed the way they farmed. “We just grew apples at first,” Alex says. “But then we started going into other crops. Eventually we started pulling out trees and started planting vegetables and diversifying. That’s what you do with farmers markets; you just find these little niches.”
Today, the Weisers grow dozens of crops (and in the case of melons and potatoes, dozens of varieties). As part of their marketing effort, Dan sends out a weekly e-mail to chefs, wholesalers and customers, letting them know just what is going to be available. This week’s list includes green almonds, Bulls Blood beet greens, lilacs, green garlic, Bloomsdale spinach and more than a dozen types and sizes of potatoes.
Ideas for new things to plant come from a variety of sources. Alex is constantly scouring seed catalogs and websites (“farmer porn,” Dan jokes). And farmers markets work not only as a place to sell crops, but also to find ideas for new ones. Chefs will make special requests. Alex is in the second year of trying to grow crosnes for Citrin (they’re a crisp tuber that’s all the rage in France). And when Alain Giraud came back from vacation this year, he brought ideas for several melons and for a French purple potato called Vitelotte.
Alex also gets ideas from his competitors. “That’s how we started with lilacs. I remember years ago looking at this incredible line in front of the stand next to me. Heck, we’d had lilacs on the farm for years, just because we liked them. I thought to myself, ‘I bet I can sell those.’ This time of year, that’s one of our best sellers.”
Though Alex acknowledges the need to expand the business, he insists farmers markets will always be at the core.
“The market gives us the confidence we need to grow stuff,” he says. “It confirms our ideas about what people are looking for. And also, knowing that I can always sell stuff here gives me leverage I wouldn’t have otherwise when dealing with produce companies. If they can’t give me a decent price, I know I can move it myself rather than just relying on them and taking what they want to give me. The worst-case scenario, I know I’m not going to lose my shirt on something; I’ve always got my costs covered.
“Farmers are always at the bottom of the food chain. But farmers markets give us a little control over our fates.”
Furthermore, the markets act as magnets for other business. “I have to say that what’s almost as important for us is what the markets produce beyond the markets,” Alex says. “We get all kinds of produce companies coming through. They bring people here for education; it’s kind of a showroom for new products. And they become some of our best customers.”
A little later, as if on cue, a couple of execs from Melissa’s, a specialty-produce wholesaler, come by the stand. Peter Steinbrick and Kenny Kataoka both whip out digital cameras and start snapping pictures of what the Weisers have grown.
“Can we do something with this?” one asks the other. “What about this? Try some of this spinach; this is awesome.”
Their enthusiasm is almost overwhelming. “If you really want to know what this is about, look at the consumers here,” Steinbrick says. “You know why they come here? They’re looking for heirloom quality. They remember when food used to taste like something and shopping here brings back that flavor. It’s something you can’t get anywhere else.
“Plus, there is an emotional connection to the food. There’s a lot of theater to it. This is what we need to get back to in supermarkets, somehow. That’s what we do at Melissa’s: We serve as a liaison between the farmers markets and the supermarkets.”
They ask if the Weisers will grow some more of those La Ratte potatoes again for them, and leave business cards, promising they’ll be in touch.
Deals like this are not uncommon. Farmers market growers are beginning to elbow their way into the supermarket aisles that once belonged exclusively to conventional farmers. Last summer, Bristol Farms sold heirloom tomatoes that bore the label of Tutti Frutti Farms, whose Santa Monica market stand is just across Arizona Avenue from the Weisers’.
But the transition is still at an awkward stage. A couple of days later, Alex says Melissa’s did call. At first it seemed promising, but then he got passed up the ranks. “The first thing the guy asks me is, ‘What if we want 20,000 boxes of that?’ ” Alex says. “And then he starts asking how cheap we can grow it.
“I had to explain to him that that’s not what we do. We’re not a volume business. We’d rather have quality, and that means having certain limitations.”