“People talk about the 100-mile diet, but what about the 5-mile diet?” asks Amelia McDonald, one of a small contingent of urban farmers who sell their homegrown produce at the Altadena Farmers Market. This is, perhaps, the unique subtext that informs the small farmers market, which has only about 35 vendors. It sets up every Wednesday afternoon in Altadena’s Loma Alta Park, nestled under the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Backyard growers have been a small but vital part of the market since it started in 2012.
On any Wednesday at the market, you may find a few hyperlocal farmers, selling a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables, all grown in and around the San Gabriel Valley. Now it is summer, and there could be eggplant, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers or chili peppers. Many local growers have sold at the market over its five-year history, but there has been a fair amount of turnover. There have been up to six concurrent backyard farms selling at the Altadena market. Now there are just two weekly vendors, Nancy’s Garden and Seminavi Farms, and one, McDonald’s Urban Farm, that shows up once a month.
Nancy Chin of Nancy’s Garden has been at the market almost from the beginning — she started in 2013, bringing produce from her home in Hacienda Heights. She had been part of the original circle of growers that sold to the L.A. restaurant Forage but decided that selling at farmers markets might be a better fit and contacted organizers of the Altadena market, which she had heard about from some of the other restaurant growers. She has since expanded to the Alhambra and Atwater farmers markets.
Harout Gulesserian, whose Seminavi Farms joined the market last fall, used to be an EMT, working in South and East Los Angeles, where he saw a preponderance of preventable, diet-related health problems and a lack of food options — concerns that seemed to be related. This encouraged him to start growing his own food, and from there things snowballed. He became the manager of a community garden and then decided to start growing to sell at farmers markets. He currently leases and works a small backyard plot in Altadena with partner and girlfriend Carina Garciga, and sells at both the Altadena and Highland Park markets.
Each grower at the market has to obtain a Certified Producers certificate, the same certification that a large farm is required to have in order to sell at a farmers market; it is designed to ensure that a farm is actually growing exactly what it claims to be. Obtaining certification is not the most transparent procedure. When Altadena Farmers Market manager Elizabeth Bowman started working for market founder Joseph Shuldiner, she was tasked with creating an easy solution for prospective vendors to navigate this process. The result was the Urban Farmer Toolkit, a step-by-step guide for getting certified and preparing to sell at a farmers market. It also served as Bowman’s capstone project, finishing out her master’s degree in urban sustainability at Antioch University.
Shuldiner had been approached about helping to establish a market in Altadena through colleagues in the community thanks to his role as director of the Institute of Domestic Technology, which holds classes in traditional cooking techniques. He initially declined the offer but was swayed when promoting hyperlocal agricultural through backyard farming became one of the goals.
In addition to selling produce and prepared food, the Altadena Farmers Market serves as a networking resource for urban growers. At the most basic level is the possibility of conversation between farmer and consumer. All of the growers talk about the great opportunity the market gives them to engage with customers. McDonald touts the importance of demonstrating to people the possibility of growing food in an urban environment, saying, “I want to show you you can do this” and “I want to know why [the customer is] here. … Listening makes me be a better farmer.” Bowman says, “I think there is interest for … restaurants or small groceries to work with hyperlocal farmers, but there aren't a lot of opportunities to connect with backyard growers.” The Altadena market creates the environment for these kinds of interactions.
Even after five years, the backyard grower movement at the market still remains very much an experiment. There is the question of what aspects of this kind of agriculture are really sustainable, for instance. Small farmers struggle to meet market demand when they try to grow such staple crops as carrots or onions, which only seem to be viable at a larger scale. For some it is a freelance endeavor and something they can pursue only as their schedule permits. Also, with such a small market, the economics are unpredictable — the payout isn’t always worth the effort.
The experiment continues to persist in earnest, though. Some of the growers, like Chin and Gulesserian, have been able to expand their operations, and they may be creating a model that others can follow. New growers are welcomed and continue to come on board. In Altadena, a small community of advocates for hyperlocal food sourcing continues to play a modest but potentially influential role in the discussion of contemporary farming practices.
Altadena Farmers Market, 587-699 W. Palm St., Altadena; altadenafarmersmarket.com. Wed., 3-7 p.m.