By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A tanned, good-looking, sturdily built man, Carpenter has been in agriculture his entire adult life. Until 10 years ago, he worked for large-scale commercial operations, usually as a farm manager. He’s been farming organically since 1988, his first attempts being in partnership with a large commercial grower on a 450-acre farm. “But the competition was very heavy,” he trails off, then adds, “Dole . . . ,” downright dolefully. Now, on his own with these 13 acres, he’s found his niche. “If you finance yourself, this is really the only way to go — growing varietals and direct-marketing them.”
We look south over the citrus-paved valley to the far blue hills. Around us, lemon trees go unpicked; their fruit, too small to sell, has begun to drop. Carpenter is clearly glad the lemons are not his concern. He has worries enough from his tomato crop, which normally starts ripening around June 10, but here it is almost July, and only a few small Sun Golds are ripe, and some Early Girls are just beginning to blush — Early Girls usually ripen in 60 days; these have been in the ground for 90. Too many cool, fog-bound days.
“We get by, pay the bills, make the payroll the rest of the year,” he says. “But tomatoes are a cash crop and usually make some difference.” He waves at the 350-foot rows of Brandywines, Juliettes, a nameless Mexican heirloom, Green Grapes, Valentines, Cherokee purples, Evergreens ... The air has that sharp, green, almost skunky scent of sun-warmed tomato plants. “That’s a $30,000 investment.” There are plenty of tomatoes, but they’re green, hard as tennis balls, all waiting for the sun.
I have been eating the Carpenters’ organic produce for years now — anonymously, of course. Coastal Organics’ fruits and vegetables are favored by Los Angeles chefs who are flocking in ever-increasing numbers to certified farmers markets. A few days earlier, at Carpenter’s stall in the Santa Monica Wednesday market, I’d sneaked a peek at the order form for Ronde de Nice squash alone (they’re an adorable round zuke) and saw requests from AOC, Campanile, Ammo, Brentwood, Capo, Chameau, Granita and the House. Some wanted the squash walnut sized, others the size of eight balls. “Half of what we grow goes to restaurants,” Carpenter says out in the sunny but still cool morning air. “They know what they want, they pay, and they buy in decent volume. We select everything we grow by keeping in mind how a restaurant could or would want to use it.”
Carpenter also grows lettuce, chard, Persian cucumbers, Italian sprouting brocolli, and many kinds of beans and squash — the adorable, round Ronde de Nice, finger-sized zukes and pretty, straight yellow Sunbursts, a variety he selected because its attaching tip is green, not yellow. He shows me a crate of French string beans, all remarkably and, it turns out, intentionally straight. “I water the bushes a lot so they grow up tall, and pull it off when the blossoming starts.” Thus, the plants are tall enough that the beans can hang without touching and then curl along the ground. Another bean, Gigantes Española, a fava-shaped shell bean now with flowers as big as white sweet peas, grows on a hurricane fence; the original seeds, a small bucketful, came from Campanile. Now, they’re a regular crop popular with AOC, Campanile, the Getty.
Farming, selling at the markets — it looks, if not idyllic, at least appealing.
“It’s so damn expensive. It’s not the equipment, it’s feeding yourself till your business builds up,” Carpenter says. “The learning curve is tough. Not the growing — but getting rid of the stuff. It takes a long time to make a living from it.”
And now that he’s succeeded in making that living — is it a good life?
Carpenter smiles a farmer’s private laconic smile. “No complaints. I’ve been married 34 years and in ag all the time. Ag is very volatile, whether you’re working for yourself or somebody else . . .” He thinks a moment. “There’s no way out of agriculture. Once you do this for a long time, what else do you know?”
Reading to a standing-room-only crowd at Skylight Books last Saturday night, Heidi Julavits, author of the new novel The Effect of Living Backwardsand co-editor (with Ed Park and Vendela Vida) of McSweeney’s new magazine The Believer,takes to the podium in a relaxed and free-associative mood wearing a yellow sleeveless blouse and flip-flops. This is the woman christened the “It Critic’s Critic” in Entertainment Weekly’s “It List” issue, and her delivery style is, to borrow a word Julavits uses to describe a Toby Olson novel, “Scheherazade-y.” Like the narrator of A Thousand and One Nights, she enthralls the crowd with humorous descriptions of her inability to sleep in hotels, the “beauty of air mattresses,” the continued mispronunciation of her name (“Joo-lavits”), and a forthcoming Believer essay about how our very appearance at public readings of literature is “contributing to the end of civilization as we know it.”
Maybe it is civilization she’s trying to save when she forgoes her longer pre-reading introduction because, she says, it is “a bit of a buzz-kill.” “I am going to read nine pages,” she explains. “I want you to be aware of the extent to which you will be expected to sit.” Julavits promises to flash the audience a sign when she reaches her final paragraphs so readers who have let their attentions wander can “tune back in.”