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Front Burner | Farmers Markets

Magical Organic Farm

October 10, 2001|DAVID KARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although few people have heard of Aguanga, 20 miles east of Temecula and a few miles north of Mount Palomar, it's home to a most unusual, almost magical farm.

The town's name (pronounced a-WONG-a), meaning "plentiful water" in the Cahuilla Indian language, hints at the aquifer that underlies Cahuilla Mountain Farm and sustains its agriculture and wildlife. Amid arid scrublands, an underground river gurgles to the surface and then forks into twin creeks, feeding reed-rimmed ponds where turtles repose on rocks. On the flatlands of the farm, rich alluvial soil, uncultivated for decades, nourishes the farm's amazing diversity of organically grown heirloom produce.

On a recent morning, as dawn dappled the melon patch, Kris Olsen, one of the farm's two young managers, picked up a Crimson Sweet watermelon and gave it a thump. The melon, one of a dozen varieties grown on the farm, was so ripe that it split open, revealing glistening ruby flesh.

Larry Giles, the other manager, came over to munch a sugary slice. Only 40 of the farm's 485 acres are farmed, he said; the rest is an informal nature sanctuary, home to golden eagles, bobcats and mountain lions.

Paul Hartmann, the farm's owner, drove up and told how he came to grow at that location. Born in Canada in 1953, he grew up in Malibu and worked as a commercial photographer, then as a personal manager for musicians. Always an avid gardener, he fell in love with the area in 1992 while house-sitting for a friend. He originally bought land at the base of Cahuilla Mountain, looming to the east, and put up a greenhouse to raise seedlings for farmers. He learned how to grow organically, planting cover crops, rotating crops, applying compost and inoculating the soil with beneficial fungi, and started selling at farmers markets.

Last year, after developers had failed to turn the Twin Creeks Ranch into a golf course, Hartmann leased and shifted most of his plantings to the property, which he hopes to incorporate into Riverside County's plan for a wildlife corridor from Mount Palomar to the San Jacinto range.

Despite the abundance of water, Hartmann seeks to irrigate thriftily. On a tour of the farm, he pointed out a field of 37 varieties of heirloom tomatoes (from the Giant Syrian to the Mexico Midget) where he had installed an experimental computer-controlled system, with sensors in the soil, that helps to deliver just the right amount of water at the right time.

The farm also grows nine kinds of cantaloupes, 20 peppers, 16 squashes and nine eggplants, including Hartmann's favorite, the mauve-blushed, tender-fleshed Rosa Bianca. Three-quarters of the varieties come from Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa-based organization that preserves old strains.

Sitting near the creek in the shade of a massive native oak, Hartmann explained why he's planted so many obscure varieties when just a few would do. "The rewards I get from farming are greater than the economics," he said. "I believe in diversity on every level--cultural, racial and botanical. Most of these are varieties that you only read about unless you grow them yourself, and providing them to the public is a spiritual service. When food is industrialized, society is debased. What this is about for us is putting the love and creativity back into food."

Each year Hartmann invites interns from around the world to learn modern sustainable farming techniques. "We learn as much from them as they do from us," he said. Coming back through the farm to his office, he pointed to fields near Highway 79, where he hopes to establish a farm stand and community gardens next spring.

His office doubles as a garlic warehouse, with 10 tons of pungent bulbs piled halfway to the rafters. "When I sit here I can distinguish the scents of 13 varieties wafting over me like a symphony," Hartmann said.

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Cahuilla Mountain Farm sells at these farmers markets: Temecula (6th and Front streets), Saturdays 8 a.m. to noon; Torrance (2200 Crenshaw Blvd.), Saturdays and Tuesdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Hancock Park (Larchmont Boulevard south of Beverly Boulevard), Sundays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Malibu (23555 Civic Center Way), Sundays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Pacific Palisades (Swarthmore Avenue north of Sunset Boulevard), Sundays 8 a.m. to noon.; Big Bear (630 Bartlett Road), Tuesdays, through October, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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