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Vegan for the Holidays

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Vegetarians in Paradise
The Great Produce Hunt

For a complete current list of farmers' markets click on Certified Farmers Markets in Los Angeles County.

Usually The Great Produce Hunt is devoted to a report on one of the farmers' markets in Los Angeles County. Instead, in this issue the VIP birds describe their experience at a local farm where they learned what happens before the vegetables arrive at the market.

Z: Our frequent visits to farmers' markets are often discovery opportunities as much as they are shopping excursions. With regularity we discover vegetable and fruit varieties that never appear in the supermarkets. Because we are often intrigued by the beautiful hydroponic produce we've purchased at several farmers' markets, we decided to visit a local hydroponic farmer and see the start-to-finish process that results in those stunning heads of lettuce. Culinary Farms

R: A phone call to David Goldman of Culinary Farms led to our appointment for a tour on an unusually warm March morning. The address was in a residential neighborhood with houses on large lots. The house facing the street gave no hint of the large lot in the backyard that housed the farm.

Z: Entering the backyard, we saw rows of elevated white pipes reminiscent of rain gutters. These, however, were a somewhat flattened hexagonal shape. Cut into the tops of each pipe were holes about 2 1/2 inches in diameter spaced several inches apart. Rising up from each of these holes were strikingly robust heads of lettuce in varying stages of maturity.

R: I expected to see a host of water-filled troughs resting right on the ground. Instead, this farmer created a unique system of pipes that were completely above ground, starting at about four feet high at the back of the lot and sloping downward to about two feet at the front of the property.

Z: That makes sense, because the water needs to flow downhill. Farmer Dave's system consisted of a frame that held 8-row sections of pipes, each pipe about 60 feet in length. This section was growing an impressive 576 plants. David surprised us with another fact. These pipes, which look like plastic, are actually made of recycled milk cartons.

R: We learned that unlike metal pipes, these are non-heat conducting as well as sturdy. Before we could ask why the rows were limited to 60-feet in length, David explained that oxygen coming to the plants starts to become depleted after 60 feet. The oxygen is diffused in a thin film of water that is pumped through the pipes and then recycled.

Red Lettuce Z: He called it a Venturi pump. He lifted one of the lettuces out of its hole and showed us its vigorous multi-root structure. We were impressed. These are the healthiest heads of lettuce we had ever seen. The process he uses to fertilize the plants is called Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) where the roots absorb the moisture and nutrients directly from the water.

R: The heart of the system is a computer dosing machine that adjusts the ph and controls the nutrients that are circulated in the pipes. With this process they can grow a fully mature head of lettuce in much less time than they could growing it in the ground. They can produce a head of romaine or green leaf in as little as six weeks, but for best flavor they prefer a growth period of 8 to 11 weeks. The slowest growing time is during the winter, the fastest, spring and summer.

Z: Walking along the pathway beside the white pipes, we could see radiant looseleaf red and green varieties of butter, oakleaf, romaine, and Batavia lettuces. It's rare to see lettuces with colors that look so crisp and brilliant you would think they were hand-painted. There were rich burgundy reds and many hues of green from pale yellow-green to deep forest green. There was one type of lettuce David called New Red Fire. From past experience we are also aware that hydroponic lettuces have a more intense flavor than those raised in the ground.

R: This is what Zel would call Lettuce Heaven. Around the edges of the property were herbs, baby lettuces, and edible flowers, all planted in the ground. There were even some society garlic plants like the ones we have in our own backyard.

Z: All of this occurs on approximately a half-acre that Farmer Dave leases. The property includes a covered patio area that has two giant barrels for washing the lettuce and a giant electrical salad spinner for drying the lettuce. David explained that a small measure of hydrogen peroxide is added to the wash water to kill any bacteria, but it also adds oxygen to the water. This process not only cleans the plants but also increases their shelf life.

R: He also showed us how the computer adds the nutrients to the water. The nutrients not only benefit the plants but are also a tonic for the neighborhood cats who come to drink the water. David claims these cats have the shiniest, fluffiest fur he has ever seen. These nutrients are much like vitamins and minerals that a person would ingest, the very same ingredients listed on vitamin labels except they're in liquid form.

Z: The plants begin their life in a small greenhouse covered by plastic sheets. The seeds are placed in Oasis cubes about 1" by 1" by 1 1/2". These cubes keep the seeds from floating down the water channels. They start about 5 to 10 new flats each week. Each flat is 10" by 20". The amazing thing is that they achieve 99% germination of these seeds. It helps that the trays are put into troughs that are heated to temperatures ranging between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Only the plants that look successful will be moved to the water system.

R: Standing amidst these perky heads of lettuce, we wondered how David became involved in the hydroponics business. He told us his father shared the interest with him when he was quite young. The family lived in apartments for many years, and if they wanted to grow something, hydroponics was a good choice. David enjoyed hydroponics as a unique hobby for over 16 years. The business has sprouted (pardon the pun) during the last 6 years. The turning point came when he decided to leave his job at L.A. Weekly, where he faced a computer screen for 6 years, and head for the outdoors and hydroponic farming as a livelihood.

Z: The business is really two ventures, Culinary Farms and bettergrowHYDRO. Many people are familiar with Culinary Farms because of their presence at Hollywood, Culver City, Northridge, Silver Lake, Burbank, Studio City and Westwood farmers' markets. bettergrowHYDRO, an "extreme gardening center," is becoming well known in Pasadena where it has been open for the last two and one-half years. He also has a thriving business selling his tasty lettuces to caterers. One caterer in Pasadena uses him exclusively for his exceptional lettuces and edible flowers.

R: The Pasadena location offers the largest selection of indoor-growing equipment and supplies in Southern California. The store not only sells equipment and nutrients, but is also a source of information to help those wanting to get started in hydoponics. A portion of the store is devoted to the Farmers' Market Café that serves all-organic salads, sandwiches, and wraps.

bettergowHYDRO Z: These days most of David's time is spent at the Pasadena store. His two full-time employees, Yanto and Erlina from Indonesia, operate the Reseda farm. He also leases six acres of land in Woodland Hills where he grows ground crops like strawberries and heirloom tomatoes. He has part-time help and three people who help him sell at farmers' markets.

R: He estimates 90% of his sales are at farmers' markets. What surprised me was the list of edible flowers he grows and markets. We walked along pathways between rows of calendulas, violas, marigolds, pansies, borage, nasturtiums, chamomile, cilantro, arugula, dahlias, and chrysanthemums. We ended our tour under the covered patio where a giant salad bowl filled with mixed greens and fresh, multi-colored flower petals rested on the table. Quite beautiful!

Z: As we were leaving, Michelle, David's wife, and his eighteen-month-old daughter Grace greeted us. What a cute little dynamo! Before we could leave, Yanto and Erlina picked two kinds of lettuce and two bags of lettuce mixes. They popped them into the bath, spun them dry, and presented them to us. This great souvenir from our gracious host completed our pleasant learning experience!

Culinary Farms can be contacted at 818-700-1071. The email address is david@exgreenhydro,com. The website is http://www.livinglettuce.com

bettergrowHYDRO is located at 1271 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91106. Phones are 626-449-6677 and 877-640-GROW (4769). Fax number is 626-449-6688. The website is http://www.bghydro.com.

Reviewed April 2002

Click here for past Farmers' Market Reviews

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