Cameron Slocum, the Eastside Tomato King + His One-Man Urban Farm

Slocum in his kingdom
Slocum in his kingdom
Ted Soqui

Heavy lies the head that wears the crown, especially when said metaphorical crown goes with the title Eastside Tomato King.

Cameron Slocum could be dealing modern furniture or hustling to

create and sell his own avant-garde artworks -- things the 53-year-old

has done before -- or he could have sought out any number of other

financially fruitful and moderately stable endeavors that match his

robust energy and bohemian-raconteur personality.

Instead, he has chosen for the last few years to farm full-time on a

plot of land in notably hilly Lincoln Heights, just a few miles from

downtown L.A., and sell his top-notch raw produce and prepared-food

products to restaurants, stores and farmers markets around Los Angeles.

Slocum's exquisite vegetables are of interest to foodies, and his

past as a minor 1980s L.A. art star makes him an interesting and offbeat

character -- his colorful hand-painted Volvo station wagon reads

"Eastside Tomato King." But his story also is greatly connected to

profound economic realities not everyone is aware of, realities within

professional agriculture and experienced by businesses and homeowners

everywhere who struggle with recession economics.

"This is why it's Cam's Tomato Kingdom," says the tall, reddish-blond

Slocum, who looks like the art-school version of Metallica frontman

James Hetfield, as he gestures around the steep, scrubby hillside behind

his house. "It was very much about: How do you create your own


The idea for Slocum's "Tomato Kingdom" germinated 25 years ago, when

he started growing a few tomatoes on the roof of a downtown loft. Then

four years ago, he heard KCRW food host Evan Kleiman talk about two

South Bay guys who grew 600 tomato plants. He bet a friend that he could

grow 600 plants.

Slocum found that the steep, rather exotically wild terrain behind

his Lincoln Heights house could be crudely terraced enough to sustain

ample growing, and three years ago he began selling wholesale produce to

upscale restaurants including Campanile, Water Grill, Barbrix and Lazy

Ox Canteen. Incidentally, it was the watershed hit art show of his

photo-paintings, for which he earned $16,200, that enabled him to put a

down payment on his current house back in 1986.

His crop list includes artichokes, Swiss chard, carrots, radishes,

turnips, cucumbers -- both pickling and slicing -- string beans, chayote,

tomatillos, eggplant, onions, garlic, four kinds of peppers, two kinds

of squash, cantaloupes and, of course, five varietals of tomatoes.

Last year, after realizing that selling whole vegetables was not

profitable enough at such a small scale, Slocum started making

prepared-food products, for which he could get quadruple the price per

pound. He takes pride in his products -- a variety of pickles, salsas and

gazpachos that he makes at a certified kitchen in Atwater Village under

official permission from the California Agricultural Commission.

Up on the dusty, diagonally tipped farmland on a recent afternoon, he

pulls from a plastic cooler a prototype bruschetta mix and offers it on

small rounds of bread. It is supremely fresh, the finely diced tomatoes

the deepest red, the flavor simultaneously slightly sweet, heartily

savory and sufficiently tangy.

"The Eastside Tomato King is a character I created," says Slocum, who

was born in Glendale and attended art school at UC San Diego.

If his pronouncements sometimes sound as philosophically abstract as

those of Marshall McLuhan or Camille Paglia, the hard, cut-and-dried

facts Slocum now faces are as real as the soil under his feet. While

he's currently adding a third farmers market to his route, and is in the

process of getting his pickles (Cam's SoCal Pickles) into Whole Foods,

he is facing a financial implosion: foreclosure.

The numbers -- mortgage, bills, business capital on one side, farming

revenue on the other -- just were not adding up while he was in the

vulnerable ramping-up period faced by most new businesses. Slocum has

not paid his mortgage for more than 18 months. The earliest date for

foreclosure on his first mortgage is Oct. 27, although according to his

calculations it could be as late as April 24.

"Right now I'm making more money every week," he says. "Once I add a

fourth farmers market I'll be making more than the lowest Hollywood crew

member -- like a location scout."

Slocum says he could rent out two-thirds of his house, retaining a

modest corner living area for himself. Then if the bank would tack the

18 months of back rent he owes onto a 30-year mortgage, the financial

situation could be rectified and he could pay his mortgage going


"But they won't," he says. "The government is not really making the banks play ball."

Slocum was stunned to learn of the scope of financial meltdown

occurring in his own neighborhood -- a multi-ethnic, working- and

middle-class enclave of historic homes, green parks, spectacular hills

and USC's L.A. County hospital and gleaming medical school. The guy

behind the counter at his post office told him they see 50 foreclosures a

week in that ZIP code.

Months ago, Slocum began farming on a half-acre of his neighbor's

adjacent hillside plot in order to avoid a business interruption after

the final day of foreclosure. He also is speaking with a charter school a

few properties away about using some of the school's hillside acreage.

Slocum trudges farther up the hill, above his crops, over a low,

dilapidated boundary fence, and glories in the even more exotic view and

rural-looking surroundings. "That's wild fennel," he exclaims,

pointing, "and that's a wild grapevine. There's deer and coyotes up

here. I'm trying to figure out how to make a pickle with those wild


Slocum waves his hand at the view. Mount Washington, downtown

skyscrapers, the edges of Griffith and Elysian parks and parts of the

L.A. Basin and the Valley are all visible in the midafternoon light.

"This is why I grow here."

Slocum is sharing his story and accepting financial help at

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