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COVER STORY

The Corn Dynasties

July 05, 1996|MARGARET SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Charlie Lopez was a younger man, the day after the Fourth of July was only slightly less tiring than the holiday itself. As they did on most hot summer days, he and his 11 siblings would wake early to pick corn from their father's 18-acre property to be sold at the family farm stand on Jefferson Boulevard in Playa del Rey.

"On the Fourth, we'd get really busy near closing with last-minute shoppers," says Lopez, now 60. "The cars wouldn't stop coming. By the end of the day we sold 500 cases of corn. The day before, we'd sell 450 cases. The only thing that got us through was the thought of cold beer."

The cold beer arrived with sunset. So did neighbors, cousins and families of the farm hands. They converged on the lawns, and the place came alive with laughter and the aroma of steaks on the grill and corn from their fields. The Lopez picnic was an annual rite for 40 people.

And then they'd go back to work on July 5. Demand for fresh corn didn't end with the holiday.

These days, Lopez sells produce from a stall in the Farmers Market at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles; it doesn't even stay open on the Fourth of July. He expected to sell about 80 boxes on July 3. And instead of growing corn himself, he turns to other farmers for supplies.

Sometimes Lopez buys corn from his Encino cousins, the Tapias.

For the Tapia brothers--Eddie, 31, Tom, 36 and Felix Jr., 40--this Fourth of July was business as usual. By their early afternoon closing, the family estimated, they would sell about 300 boxes--18,000 ears of fresh sweet corn--at their Encino farm stand.

Even so, the Tapia brothers, heirs to a produce business started by their grandfather, are, like the Lopez clan and the Ciceros of Woodland Hills, members of a dying breed. Changing lifestyles and tastes, the cost of labor and land, and better career opportunities have whittled the fraternity of Southern California's corn-growing families.

The 18-acre Lopez ranch used to be a mecca for lovers of sweet corn. All that remains is four acres of working farm, a barn, two hothouses, a produce stall and a couple of trailers. It's a relic from another era in today's Playa del Rey of towering glass-and-chrome office buildings.

Chris Lopez, 43, runs the ranch now, but instead of farming, he buys produce from hundreds of farmers, many of whom learned to grow corn from his late father, Cressy Lopez, the older brother of Charlie Lopez. Lately, Chris Lopez has been looking forward to the day when he will sell produce to employees at DreamWorks, the entertainment production company of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. (The three moguls recently bought the property across the street from the Lopez ranch.)

In Encino, 64-year-old Felix Tapia Sr. doesn't need to be out in the fields anymore. He stands in the background and oversees the work of his three sons.

"We used to have 30 farmers in the Valley alone in the '70s," Felix Sr. recalls. "Now, we have three or four. There's no land left. Everything is built up."

The Tapia Produce stand at Hayvenhurst Avenue and Burbank Boulevard has been in the family since 1925. Felix Sr. and his two brothers inherited it from their father in the mid-'60s. His sons intend to keep it going.

The Tapias' 500-plus acres are split into three locations that seem safe from outside developers. The parcel closest to the farm stand is in the Sepulveda Flood Control Basin, hardly a lure for property investors. Others are in Lancaster and Oxnard. But only 110 acres of the total is reserved for growing corn.

"Corn isn't so popular anymore," Felix Sr. says. "Eating habits have changed. Women don't cook anymore, and people would rather go out and buy fast food." Corn has also been eclipsed by the sheer variety of produce available in the supermarkets.

The sweet corn business has been revolutionized in recent years by the super-sweet varieties, which account for 90% of farm stand corn sales. Raising the new corn has proved tricky, though. The Tapias saw some colleagues fail at it before planting their own test crops five years ago. The new varieties required more attention to germination, pollination and watering. The yields in the beginning were smaller, says Eddie Tapia. But with time, the seed varieties improved, as has the Tapias' success in working with them.

The public wants super-sweet corn, and the reason is obvious. As Eddie Tapia says, it doesn't need any cooking. "It is so sweet and tender," he says, "you can eat it straight from the field."

Unlike Chris Lopez, Eddie Tapia is committed to carrying on the family business as a farmer, not as a businessman. He is shopping for more land to grow tomatoes, which are a big seller this year. "Farming is in my blood," he says. "I'm not an office type like my brother." (His youngest brother, Bob, works in the electronics business.)

The three brothers butt heads with their father over many issues, such as which crops to plant, how to grow and irrigate them, and the price.

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