On a dreary, overcast Saturday morning in September the two birds of paradise, Zel and Reuben, donned their colorful VIP T-shirts and headed for the Arts District and Little Tokyo. Their investigative assignment was to learn about the Arts District Little Tokyo Certified Farmers' Market and share their findings with their readers.
Z: As we approached 3rd Street and Traction, we noticed the familiar tents and cupolas that signal the presence of a farmers' market. In this case there were barricades closing 3rd Street between Rose and Traction and more barricades blocking traffic on Traction between 3rd and Rose.
R: That seemed to give the market a triangular configuration. At the intersection of 3rd and Traction there was ample parking in a fenced-in, asphalt-paved lot. In the middle of the intersection of 3rd and Traction was the bandstand for the Marc Free Jazz Quintet that appears weekly to serenade the market patrons.
Z: The market, only in operation for a few months, appeared to be facing the dilemma of how to attract more customers while holding on to the farmers and vendors who are participating.
R: Our first reaction to this market was that there weren't enough people coming out to experience it. Despite the small number of vendors, the market had much to offer.
Z: The four participating farmers presented a unique variety of produce choices, some organic. I was especially impressed with Shiraz Farms from Bonsall, just north of San Diego. This is a family enterprise, and what an interesting family. They have operated the 20-acre farm for about 10 years and have been certified organic for more than 5. They have followed organic practices from the very beginning, but did not have the funds to gain certification when they started the farm.
R: The father, Bagher Bahardar, earned a Ph.D. in agriculture. He is now in Iran to help develop organic agriculture in that country. His wife Ginger, a California girl, will soon join him along with their daughter Zohrer, who was born in Iran.
Z: Ginger extolled the merits of organic farming by saying, "It's better for the environment and the soil." She smiled and said, "If your farm is full of weeds, they (visitiors) know it's organic. If you look at our fruit, you can tell it's organic." As she held up a navel orange, we noticed that it wasn't picture perfect but was not something we would reject.
R: The question is "What happens to Shiraz Farms when they leave?" Their plan is to turn the operation over to eldest son Taif whom we met that morning. He's been interning and learning the job for a few years.
Z: Their table presented us with some tempting choices like the Chili Coyote Squash, a small white pumpkin with a speckled green pattern. Ginger described it as a Mexican treat with a touch of sweetness. One of the Coyotes escaped to our house and is waiting to be baked in the oven. On the table next to it was Moon and Star Watermelon whose name suggests you need no further words to describe it.
R: Along with being organic, the farm grows many heirloom vegetables including tomatoes, squashes, onions, and snow peas. Their display had red, brown, and white onions along with giant scallop or pattypan squash, Reed and Haas avocados, and fresh herbs. Fruit offerings were Eureka and Meyer lemons, navel oranges, pineapple guava, and passion fruit.
Z: When we asked about the guava, Ginger handed one to us to sample. It doesn't have the pineapple texture and the taste is not quite like pineapple, but it was quite delicious. We just had to have some of their passion fruit to take home and arouse the taste buds. As we tossed two into our bag, Ginger explained that passion fruit falls to the ground when it's ripe. No need to climb any trees for those treats.
R: Takahashi Farms from Bellflower provided a generous selection of vegetables and herbs. Salad lovers would delight in the variety of lettuces that included Boston, oak leaf, iceberg, red leaf, and romaine. The brassica family was in evidence with cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and purple kohlrabi.
Z: And, of course, all kinds of tomatoes: Roma, cluster, cherry. We noticed items that are not as common at farmers markets, like Japanese dandelions, sorrel, and fresh soybeans on a stalk.
R: One of the highlights of the day was the time we spent visiting the table of OK Farms. Vendor James Uh, learning we were vegetarians, wondered how our diet gave us enough strength and energy. Looking at Zel, he asked, "Can you do pushups?" When Zel answered with confidence, "Yes, of course!" he laid his jacket on the sidewalk so that she wouldn't dirty her yellow Vegetarians in Paradise sweatshirt.
Z: After I did a dozen pushups, I paused, looked at him, and said, "Now let's see how many pushups you can do." James, a bit heavy and out of shape, got down in position and did a few mock pushups and was puffing.
R: Yeah for Zel! What a great victory for a vegetarian over a carnivore. But we should give our readers an idea of what the farm brought to this market. Although the stone fruit season was winding down, there were still white nectarines and yellow peaches available. Also on the table were Reed avocados, Fuji apples, and Singko (Korean) pears as well as Thompson seedless and Red Flame grapes.
Z: Brett Kingsbury of Eden Earth Beverages was anxious for us to sample his juices. We sipped watermelon lemonade, concord grape, and honeydew. All were unfiltered, sweet, and refreshing. It was like eating the whole fruit without the seeds or skins. We were curious about his cucumber lemonade, but there was none left. Only in business for a few months, Brett, who has seen his own health improve during the last two years because of his juicing, wants to share his juices with the world. They're pure juices with only the addition of stevia for sweetening the ones containing lemonade.
R: Adjacent to the juices was a table filled with attractive and unusual breads from Eric Kayser's Breadbar. Quite tempting were chocolate chip, walnut, fig, walnut raisin, hazelnut, curcumon, and buckwheat. The buckwheat intrigued Zel because it was vegan, gluten free, and contained no wheat flour.
Z: Needless to say, it came home with us. So did some olives from Eliki Olive Oil. We also bought their unique hummus and a container of giant baked beans. We almost succumbed to baba ganoush, sweet red peppers, and Ali-oli Garlic Spread after we sampled some of each.
R: We met Linda Gallardo who manages Skyline Flowers that sells at 18 farmers' markets. The company, based in Oxnard, grows flowers in Camarillo and Santa Maria as well as Oxnard. Their colorfully striking display that day featured lisianthius, snapdragons, gerbera daisies, roses, and protea.
Z: I kept staring at the amaranthus with their delicately swaying fronds of green, dusty gold, and magenta. They reminded me of the pipe cleaners my father used years ago. Another unique bouquet was the wine-colored atriplex with its tiny round leaves. Reuben commented that atriplex sounded like some disease.
R: What really stood out were the ornamental pepper bouquets and the mini pumpkin trees. We now have a pumpkin tree ensconced in a vase on our dining room table.
Z: We spoke to Susan Hutchinson, market manager, who explained that the market was "a true grass roots effort." Susan, who has her business making satin baby slings, once lived in the neighborhood herself. She related that there was little opportunity to find fresh fruits and vegetables in the area that has been populated by artists since the 1970's.
R: The artists originally had to conceal the fact that they were living in their lofts. The city council eventually passed an ordinance to allow them to reside in their studio lofts. Now that this former industrial area is becoming a desirable spot, developers have moved in to create fancy apartments and condos, and many artists can't afford the steep rise in rents brought about by this new gentrification.
Z: The market is a project of the Los Angeles River Artists and Business Association (LARABA) and is an all-volunteer effort. Susan donates her time as do Jonathan Jerald and Jennifer Mayka who were there to assist her. Jonathan, a filmmaker who produces documentaries for the History Channel, also serves on the board of directors of LARABA. Bandleader Marc Free is another member of the board of directors.
R: LARABA was hoping that the 500 new units down the street would be opened by the time the market came into existence, but the units are not yet ready for occupancy. The organization was encouraged by the opening of the Southern California Institute of Architecture in a refurbished 1894 building once the home of derelicts in the neighborhood.
Z: As we completed our shopping, we encouraged Susan to make a massive effort to bring more shoppers. Grateful for our input, she handed us a canvas shopping bag with the market logo. She insisted we take it with us. As we walked to our car, one of the few in the giant parking lot, we listened the sounds of the quartet playing a jazz standard. We had our fingers crossed that this market would succeed.
Arts District Little Tokyo Certified Farmers' Market
Reviewed October 2005