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Going Full-Time Organic Out in Sagebrush Country

March 21, 2001|DAVID KARP

Of the several thousand growers at California's certified farmers markets, only a few do all the work themselves. Most are hobbyists; it is almost impossible, without employees, to plant, harvest and sell enough produce to make a living.

Jerry and Melanie Lahr, however, are full-time farmers who have chosen this arduous path, and the strain of endless chores and 3 a.m. trips to market sometimes shows in their faces. But they're passionate about growing the best-tasting vegetables organically, without compromises, and their fans at two Santa Monica markets reward this commitment with equally intense loyalty.

Surrounded by the sagebrush scrub and trailer parks of Desert Hot Springs, the Lahrs work five greenhouses enclosing two acres of tightly packed plants, irrigated with water from one of the town's famous thermal springs. As certified organic growers (meaning that their farm is inspected each year to verify adherence to organic methods) they use beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings to control pests.

The Lahrs are fanatical about the quality of their soil, Jerry Lahr said on a recent afternoon, sifting a handful of the moist brown-black stuff. "We nurture it to feed the plants. We don't just spread manure and say we're farming organically; we add tons of compost every year and supplement with kelp." The end result is a living, complex, balanced soil that adds layers of flavor to their produce.

The Lahrs harvest amazingly tasty tomatoes in late winter and early spring by growing, in their greenhouses warmed by the desert sun, heirloom varieties such as Cherokee, Russian Red and Catface. The plants yield much less than modern hybrids, but the difference in flavor is unmistakable.

"We try to grow varieties that we like to eat ourselves," Melanie Lahr says.

At markets, they tend a stand crowded with bags of amaranth, basil, chard, baby fennel greens, ong choy and tiny, aromatic Charentais melons. Chefs from restaurants such as Les Deux Cafes and the Little Door often stop by, and regular customers know to show up early for the best sweet and hot peppers and rare ring-shaped Italian beans called anellini.

Born in San Diego, Jerry Lahr started growing organic vegetables in 1980, shortly before he married Melanie, an Indio native. They couldn't make money selling wholesale, so in 1992 they started at the Santa Monica market, where they're now a fixture from November through July.

Back at the farm, Melanie Lahr's eyes light up in the artichoke patch, not for artichokes but for cardoons, an old Italian specialty. She plucks a stem off a young plant and removes the leaves. In the kitchen, she cuts it into pieces, which she blanches, dips in egg and bread crumbs, then fries in olive oil.

"This is my memory food," she said, savoring the sweet stems. "My dad's parents came from Palermo and Corleone, and as a child I'd get all these weird foods I had to eat. But I ended up loving them and making them my life."

The Lahrs sell at the Santa Monica farmers markets at Arizona Avenue and 3rd Street, Wednesdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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