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If You Want the Thyme, This Farm's for You

August 20, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

Louis O. Badders may have the most pungent 10 acres in Southern California, and gourmet chefs in restaurants and homes across America owe part of their menus to the 80-year-old Pomona farmer.

He grows herbs--17 kinds of them, 75 tons a year--to satisfy a growing demand for fresh seasonings such as basil, cilantro, marjoram, oregano, tarragon and thyme. His decision 30 years ago to switch from growing tomatoes and other vegetables to herbs drew skepticism at the time, he says, but now he's viewed as a visionary.

"Lou Badders was 30 years ahead of his time," said Frieda Caplan, 63, owner of Frieda's Finest Produce Specialties, a Los Angeles import-export company dealing in exotic vegetables and fruits. "He was one of the pioneers in growing herbs for the fresh food market in America and has been at it longer than anybody I know."

Caplan said that in the past seven years, a number of small farmers have started growing herbs commercially with the movement toward more fresh vegetables and fruits on the dinner table.

"People are looking for salt substitutes to add taste to vegetables. Herbs are one of the easiest ways of doing it. Chefs coming over from Europe, accustomed to having their own herb gardens back home, insist on using fresh herbs in preparing their specialty dishes."

And with the premium prices paid in supermarkets for fresh herbs, farmers such as Badders have found a tiny niche of profit in an otherwise depressed market for farm products.

Every day, Badders brings his fresh herbs by truck to the Los Angeles produce market and ships his fragrant treasures by air to other markets throughout the nation.

Fresh Herbs In Demand

"Good chefs and epicures can tell the difference immediately between fresh and dehydrated herbs when savoring specially seasoned dishes," says Badders, standing in a field of sage with rows of rosemary in the background. "In the best restaurants, the soups, sauces, salads, stews, stuffings and seasonings are always prepared with fresh herbs," he added.

Badders wore his customary outfit--overalls and a floppy hat. He spends each day on these 10 acres or in his packing sheds, planting, caring for, harvesting and shipping the leaves of these exotic plants.

As the business has grown, Badders has hired seven men to help him.

Badders and his wife of 56 years, Marie, have traveled the world visiting herb farmers. They've been to Africa, Asia, the Near East, Europe, India, Mexico and South America.

"I keep searching for someone who knows more about growing herbs than I do. I'm not bragging when I say I haven't found that person yet," he said. "But I keep looking because I want to add to my knowledge."

As he walked up and down rows of chervil, oregano and savory, he attributed his wisdom not to books but to getting his fingers dirty in the soil. When he was in the eighth grade, he quit school to go to work on the family farm.

Badders also grows rare and seldom-farmed specialty vegetables such as black radish, kohlrabi (turnip cabbage) and new varieties of beets and squash.

Tarragon, he noted, is his best money crop, bringing $2.50 to $14 a pound depending upon the season.

But he quickly added: "All my crops are money crops. I sympathize with farmers who have fallen on bad times. What I grow has always been in great demand. My success is based on many secrets learned over the years by trial and error."

At one time, Badders owned 3,000 acres of farmland in Pomona and Chino. He sold out to developers, and those acres now sprout homes. But he has no regrets. He snipped leaves from l'herbe royale, otherwise known as basil, and said:

"Herbs really add so much to your cooking, you can't imagine."

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