R: If I believed in reincarnation for a farmers' market, the Westwood market would be a classic example. Facing insurmountable problems, the market, which was a weekly attraction in the heart of Westwood Village for twelve years, ceased to exist in March 2006. In its previous incarnation the market was situated on Weyburn Avenue and part of Glendon Avenue that were closed off each Thursday afternoon.
Z: Yes, I do remember when we visited the Westwood market in February 2000. We had the feeling of being in a small town where two of the main streets were closed down to make room for the farmers' tables and booths. But there were numerous problems beneath the surface of the bustling market that drew large crowds. Parking and new construction in the area were two factors in the demise of the market. Accusations of financial irregularities and being thrown out of the Southland Farmers' Market Association added to the difficulties.
R: On July 6, 2006 the market resurfaced at a new location with new management, a nonprofit called Just Balance. Speaking of reincarnation, the new manager Mark Wall was a veteran of farmers' markets in the Los Angeles area. Wall, an executive in Just Balance, was one of the founders of Southland Farmers' Market Association.
Z: He was manager of the first farmers' market in Los Angeles, the Gardena market that began in 1979. You might say that this is a reincarnation of Mark Wall who has been out of the Los Angeles area for a few years and has not been active in farmers' markets until recently. When he heard the market had closed, he and his Just Balance colleagues decided they would revive the market in a new location.
R: What normally would take six months to a year to establish a market was accomplished in seven weeks. They decided to locate the market in the Vets Garden, a portion of the Veterans Administration property in West Los Angeles. With this location the market solved one of its major problems--parking.
Z: Would you believe 500 parking spaces? But in return one important feature was lost: visibility. You have to know the market is here. It can't be seen when you're driving by, and you don't just walk in off the street. However, those who shop at the market will discover one of L.A.'s best-kept secrets--the beautiful, pastoral Vets Garden.
R: The Vets Garden is a wonderful opportunity for veterans to heal themselves physically and emotionally by learning hands-on vocational skills in a Horticultural Therapy Program. The garden, established in 1986 as a therapy program, has become so much more. It has developed into a business where sales of plants pay vets salaries and the operating expenses of the garden.
Z: The vets maintain the garden, the greenhouse, and the expansive grounds that total 15 acres. At their booth they sell indoor and outdoor plants, cut flowers and flower arrangements, pesticide-free herbs, vegetables, and fruits as well as vet-produced handmade crafts. They also assist in setup and breakdown of the market as well as helping with traffic control and safety. The Vets Garden is involved in landscape design and maintenance for many sites on the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Campus. Visitors can enjoy the garden weekdays from 7:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and, of course, during the late afternoon on farmers' market days.
R: "I want to take this market and do what others have not done," Mark told us. "I really want to help the vets," he added. He is so committed to making this market succeed that he is currently not taking a salary. Farmers at this market are paying lower participation fees than they would be charged at other markets. Wall is keeping the current schedule of 1 to 7 p.m. because those were the hours previously, but he feels the farmers would welcome a shorter market and may adjust the closing time as the days become shorter. The neighboring VA facilities provide the patrons who come on their lunch hour, for late afternoon shopping, or for dinner in the Vets Garden.
Z: Our readers may feel that the Vets Garden is the whole market. Not so. There was a wide selection of fresh produce at the tables of the 20 farmers in attendance. Since this is the height of the stone fruit season, there were many succulent choices. Mark Boujikian from Raisin City had his usual great selection of dried fruits and raw nuts.
R: For me those black figs on his table were to die for -- pure sugar in a basket. They're hard to find in the supermarkets, and when you do find them, they're either picked too soon or refrigerated and tasteless. I was quite happy to put two baskets in our shopping bag. The table also featured black plums, red plums, white nectarines, and three kinds of grapes: Red Flame, Thompson seedless, and a variety of black ones that were quite delicious.
Z: We could smell the fragrance emanating from the display of Tenerelli Orchards from Littlerock. We inhaled the aroma of their yellow peaches that were quite low in acidity. Peach lovers know that the lower the acidity, the sweeter the fruit. Other temptations on the table were the Black Beauty Plums, Diamond Bright yellow nectarines, and Ruby Pearl white nectarines.
R: Peacock Family Farms from Dinuba also was peach heaven. They offered Flamecrest yellow peaches along with a tremendous selection of eggplants that really excited Zel. Choices included Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai Fairy Tale, Beatrice Italian, and Rosa Blanca Italian. Their table featured vine ripe and beefsteak tomatoes, Red flame and Thompson seedless grapes, shiitake mushrooms, and chili peppers in shades of green, orange, and red.
Z: Don't forget to mention their raisins, walnuts, and the Fancy Trail Mix. Tomai Farms from Oxnard also offered tomatoes, especially two delicious heirlooms, the Brandywine and the pineapple. Anyone who has never tasted the pineapple heirloom is missing a special taste sensation. Their squash selection included both yellow and green zucchini, Mexican Zucchini, and Chinese Ball that was the size of a baseball. They sold what looked like oversized string beans that were actually plump Romano broad beans.
R: One of our favorite stops was the Z Ranch table. Z Ranch grows their organic fruits and vegetables in the Imperial Valley. They were the only ones offering okra. But the highlight of their table was the delicious melons. We sampled and after our exclamation of delight, we purchased a cantaloupe and honeydew. The baby watermelon was tempting, but our bag was getting a bit heavy.
Z: Swerdoski Farms from Bell Gardens was a vegetable lover's paradise. Five types of lettuce included romaine, green leaf, red lead, butter, and iceberg. Cucumber devotees would have been ecstatic over their international cucumber selection that included Armenian, English, Japanese, and lemon varieties. Their table also included broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, carrots, onions, garlic, squash blossoms, and dandelion greens. I was especially intrigued by their heirloom tomatoes, especially one they labeled "Momotaro." It was exceptionally tasty.
R: We were surprised to learn that navel oranges were still available from Polito Family Farms in Valley Center, but this was the last week for a navel engagement. Of course, this citrus grower had plenty of Valencia oranges as well as two kinds of lemons, Eureka and Persian. The Persian are low acid and quite sweet. Their table spotlighted three unique varieties of late-harvest tangerines: mottled-skin Primaveras, Gold Nugget Mandarins, and Mineola tangelos (a cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit).
Z: The special attraction for me at Polito's table was the large round Reed avocados. Their rich creamy flavor sends me into a deep rapture. Fortunately, I took two of them home, a better place to experience my rapture. Almost as exciting for me was tasting Sherrill Orchards' pomegranate juice. Dennis Osborne told us the remarkable qualities of pomegranate juice. It's loaded with antioxidants and "it's the number one juice for cleaning the blood stream." Dennis explained that they don't use just the seeds but squeeze the entire pomegranate under high pressure to create the juice.
R: David Chung from Johna's Orchard in Tehachapi gave us a timetable for the totally organic apple harvest on his 60-acre ranch. The Galas arrive at the end of August while the Red and Gold Delicious make their appearance in September. The Pink Lady, Jonagold, and Granny Smith apples debut in October. Most of his crop, the Fujis, are ready for the farmers market in October and November. For me one of the highlights of the market was a bag of Johna's Orchard 100% Apple Chips. I could not believe the concentrated sweetness of the chips. They were crunchy dried Fuji apples with nothing added, yet they tasted like they were doused in sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
Z: I do have to mention the great selection of flowers and plants available at this market. Skyline Flowers had their usual fine selection of cut flowers. Their most striking item was the maroon coreopsis with their bright yellow tips. Shigeru Nursery from Oxnard had a colorful display of gerbera daisies and lavender, but I was especially attracted to the physostegias with their spiky-leafed light green stalks and bright purple blossoms. Not only were they quite beautiful, but that beauty would remain vibrant for about two weeks. We concluded our market visit in the picnic area in the Vet's Garden. Walking in through the entrance, we noticed the attractive potted plants and beautiful cut flowers I thought of as the fruits of vets' labors.
R: As we sat at one of the picnic tables in a shaded expanse of tall trees, we watched a hummingbird buzzing over a large rock fountain. We could hear Christopher Barran strumming on his guitar as he sang a tribute to his dog Brandy. Our brief moment of relaxation in this serene setting transported us miles away from the big city. At that moment I looked at Zel and said, "This market has to succeed."
Westwood Farmers' Market at Vet's Garden
Reviewed September 2006