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
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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 savecamsfarm.com.