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The Non-Dirt Farmers

April 18, 2001|DAVID KARP

Blink your eyes driving south through North Shore, population 300, and the golf courses, dates and citrus of the Coachella Valley give way to the barren biblical landscape surrounding the shimmering Salton Sea. Just past this transition, where the sandy soil and lack of cheap water deter conventional agriculture, there appear, like a mirage, 20,000 lush tomato plants growing out of white plastic tubes.

Welcome to Wong Farms, part of a vision that has spanned four generations. Starting in 1945, Ed Wong Sr., whose father immigrated from Canton to work on the railroad, raised vegetables on Camp Pendleton but dreamed of a hydroponic system that would enable farmers to grow in areas with poor soil.

In 1968 his son, Ed Jr., moved the family farm to 10 acres in North Shore; over the next two decades he perfected the soil-free method, earned two patents and consulted for the Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments. He died three years ago; his wife, Bertha, and daughter Deborah have expanded his legacy.

On a recent morning, just after dawn, workers stripped off plastic wraps protecting rows of tomatoes from the rain and started to pick, searching through the foliage for ripe red fruits. After filling the harvest wagon, they packed tomatoes directly into boxes in the field.

Deborah walked over to a row of younger plants, pulled one out of the tube and pointed out the bare roots. At other hydroponic farms, she said, the plants grow in greenhouses, and their roots grab onto a medium such as gravel. In contrast, the Wongs' open-air plants grow bare-rooted in the water, to which is added all the necessary nutrients.

By controlling the roots' temperature, the Wongs can harvest sweet, tasty tomatoes starting in mid-February, long before the local season for soil-grown crops. Their main variety is Shady Lady, a large beefsteak-type hybrid with leafy vines that protect the tomatoes from the scalding sun, but they also have cherry and yellow tomatoes as well as seedless Japanese cucumbers.

Because the farm is just over the line from the Coachella agricultural district, the Wongs have to pay astronomical rates for residential water. Fortunately, it's much purer than irrigation water, with a better mineral balance for hydroponics. The Wongs recycle the tomato waste water to irrigate four acres of grapes, which ripen in mid-May, and 100 young mango trees, which will bear their first crop in August.

Sixteen family members sell at as many as 31 farmers markets, ending in July, when the desert heat becomes unbearable for man and tomato (up to 127 degrees). Usually the Wongs summer in San Clemente, but as Deborah admired the blooming 6-foot-tall mango trees, she considered the inevitable result. "I'll just have to be here," she said. "These mangoes will be sooo luscious!"

Wong Farms sells at the Fullerton farmers market (450 W. Orangethorpe Ave., Wednesdays 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.); Santa Monica (Arizona Avenue and 3rd Street, Wednesdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.); Thousand Oaks (Wilbur Road and Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thursdays 3 to 7 p.m.); Burbank (Olive Avenue between Glen Oaks Boulevard and 3rd Street, Saturdays 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.); Hollywood (Ivar Avenue between Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, Sundays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.); and 25 other markets, listed at http://www.tastytomato.com. The farm, at 98-300 Ave. 70 in North Shore, is open for direct sales Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (760) 861-7133.

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