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Urban Farming: Or, How to Start a Farmers Market Stand With Your Backyard Citrus Trees, or Not

Urban Farming: Or, How to Start a Farmers Market Stand With Your Backyard Citrus Trees, or Not
Emily Green

There's a wheelbarrow

in the kitchen. How it got there doesn't bear thinking about. The moment

for thought is long gone. With every bang of my shin on the barrow, it

dawns on me that this is only the first load of many of oranges, lemons

and tangerines that needs picking, trimming, washing, drying, sizing and

packing in the 18 hours before I debut at the Altadena Farmers Market.

The good news is that my hands no longer hurt. The bad news? They have no sensation whatsoever.

Folly

this painful generally starts with an oversight. In my case, it was a

2011 move to an Altadena house where the enormous backyard held the

remnants of an old citrus farm. I took the majestic orange, lemon and

tangerine trees as little more than scenery when signing the deed. Soon,

however, catching the fruit proved the single most difficult job in the

garden. Letting it hang ripe indefinitely on the trees or molder on the

ground was only an option if I wanted rats.

As a new crop of

Valencia oranges began to ripen early this summer, I was on the verge of

calling in a nonprofit founded expressly to unburden homeowners of

excess fruit, when a friend suggested that I sell the citrus instead. A

new farmers market was opening on Wednesday afternoons in nearby Loma

Alta Park. The organizers were keen to integrate booths operated by

professionals from Ventura and the San Joaquin Valley with stalls

stocked by local "urban farmers."

The term "urban farmer" makes me

wince. I am to a farmer what a school nurse is to a brain surgeon.

However, it's also clear why we need the tag. The term "gardening" in

Los Angeles has been reduced to little more than growing grass, mowing

it and throwing away the clippings. While I don't do that, my garden was

still far too wasteful. Overwhelmed by the old citrus trees, I'd lost

count of how many barrels of delicious fruit I'd wheeled to the compost

pit.

When the conservationists behind the launch of the farmers

market offered the opportunity to check this waste, I registered with

the county under the trading name "Old Soldier Citrus." After paying for

registration and buying a shade tent (total roughly $200), I calculated

that after a couple of weeks, I might even make enough to pay a water

bill or two.

"It's only one day's work a week," I told myself.

That

would have been true if fruit picked, trimmed, washed, graded, sized

and packed itself. The day before Old Soldier was to debut, I stood

perilously high up a tall ladder, pruners in one hand, a recalcitrant

Eureka lemon tree limb in the other. A half-full sack of fruit tugged at

my shoulder. Spindly old wood from dried branches tore at my forearms.

Squinting through deadwood, live wood, leaves and spiderwebs, I was

reduced to making blind cuts, hoping I didn't harvest my fingers.

If

oranges and lemons are very ripe, they can be tugged from the stem.

However, pulling the fruit -- particularly with claw-head picking poles --

can mean that you'll also harvest stem, leaves, blossoms and often

unripe fruit with it. This damages the tree and intensifies the trimming

job during packing. So I preferred hand-pruning from a ladder.

The

day before market, by the end of the afternoon in which I'd imagined

I'd have all the picking done, I'd only finished one tree, the Eureka.

What lemons were gleaned still needed washing, drying, sizing and

packing. Overwhelmed at the sight of the wheelbarrow in the kitchen, I

squeezed two oranges, added some peach syrup and diced chili pepper,

poured the mix over ice, added two fingers of bourbon and named it an

Old Soldier.

"Now this I could sell," I thought, making myself another.

Starting

at dawn the next morning, I managed a barrow each of Valencia oranges

and Meyer lemons. By the time a friend arrived in the early afternoon to

help me pack up the car and set up the stall, I had six crates of

citrus. None of it had been off the tree for more than 24 hours. All of

it had been cleaned, trimmed, packed with newspaper to protect it from

bruising and mold, and finished with fanciful tufts of colored paper.

Attitudes

toward pricing vary among urban farmers. My objective was to move fruit

rather than compost it, so I priced my citrus more cheaply than Trader

Joe's: $1.25 per pound for Eurekas, $1.50 for Meyers, $1 for Valencia

oranges, with every bag weighed to make sure it was over and never under

on the scale.

Once set up at the market, as my friend and I stood

behind our fruit, it was fascinating to watch passing shoppers make eye

contact with the citrus but not us, never us. I've leveled the same

noncommittal gaze countless times at countless markets. As a shopper,

I've long wondered if even taking a tasting sample leads to indebtedness

to purchase. As a vendor, I realize now, it doesn't. All vendors want

is for you to give them a shot. Even when tides of local teens swept

through a-sampling, my stallmate and I didn't mind. "How nice to see

youth eating fruit," my friend quipped.

Because Altadena is part

of L.A. County's historic citrus belt, I worried that selling oranges

here would be a case of coals to Newcastle. Yet for every shopper who

apologized that they had their own Valencia tree at home, two more

tasted the sample wedges as if they had never eaten an orange before.

The vibrant flavor of the day-fresh oranges sent all of our Valencias

flying off the shelves. By the end of four hours, the oranges were long

gone and the remaining lemons were being bartered with fellow

stallholders for oysters, bread, eggs and some superb semi-hard sheep's

milk cheese.

As my friend and I packed up the tent, trestle table

and empty boxes, I was stupefied by exhaustion. Sensation had come back

to my formerly numb hands, which now throbbed. We'd made all of $90 for

two days of excruciatingly hard work.

Back at home, the

kitchen-turned-packing house was a shambles. I would have an Old

Soldier, maybe two, before cleaning. My friend asked where she should

put the tent and table. "Leave it in the car," I said. We'd need it when

we went back next week.


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