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A Life With Lettuce: One Farmer's Long, Strange Trip

Farmers Markets

April 10, 2002|DAVID KARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dennis Peitso, the owner of Maggie's Farm in Agoura Hills, may be the only farmer who commutes to work from a boat in Marina del Rey. He has shaggy brown hair, an amiable laugh and the laid-back manner of an old hippie.

As he tells it, he followed a twisty path to farming. Raised on a Minnesota dairy farm, he served four tours in Vietnam. After wandering the world, getting married and divorced and earning a degree in Chinese language and culture, he ended up in the 1970s doing construction work in Berkeley.

There he met his second wife, Andrea Crawford, and they started growing mesclun, the traditional Provencal mix of spicy greens including lettuces, frisee, arugula, mustard greens and cress, for Chez Panisse restaurant. At that time mesclun was rare in America, and they were so successful they started growing other items that chefs couldn't get elsewhere, such as mache and radicchio.

In 1984, at the urging of chef Wolfgang Puck, Peitso and Crawford moved south to set up a similar operation in a Venice backyard to supply L.A. restaurants. It flourished and they eventually sold the Berkeley business. As their production increased, they moved to properties in Tarzana and Agoura Hills, which they called Kenter Canyon Farms, and started selling at farmers markets.

After the couple separated in 1988 and split the business, Dennis renamed his share Maggie's Farm, after the Bob Dylan song. (At one point he planned to set up a grocery store in Santa Monica as part of a venture with Dylan, a friend of a friend, but it didn't happen.)

Sandwiched between new horse ranchos and the sage and scrub oak-covered hills of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the Agoura farm is still a work in progress. Arriving at the property early enough in the morning that it is still foggy and chilly, Peitso directs his foreman, Ramiro Navarro, in laying new irrigation pipe, while other workers laboriously hand-weed a patch of baby lettuce. "It's insanely expensive to pull them by hand," says Peitso, "but that's the only way we can do it organically."

As a jackrabbit hops by, he says: "They eat tons, the deer too. We deal with it by planting enough for everybody." Mountain lions occasionally skulk around the area, too, he says, and when they do, the workers have to wait to turn on the irrigation valves.

Later he stops by his Tarzana farm, a long narrow strip of seven acres underneath power lines. The land is bordered by houses, including the former hunting cottage of Edgar Rice Burroughs (the author of "Tarzan," the community's namesake), but homes can't be built directly beneath the power lines. Thus, notes Peitso, "urban agriculture has a chance to flourish."

At the bottom of the hill, two workers bend close to the ground to snip off baby arugula and spinach, then carefully wash the greens in a nearby shed. At the top of the property, Peitso clips intensely aromatic Mexican oregano and tweaks off tiny red flowers of pineapple sage, which provide an exquisite tinge of pineapple flavor.

Asked why has he stayed small while many of his competitors have gone commercial, he says simply: "Quality versus quantity."

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Maggie's Farm sells at these farmers markets: Santa Monica (Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street), Wednesdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Westwood (Weyburn Avenue at Westwood Boulevard), Thursdays 1 to 7 p.m.; Venice (Venice Boulevard at Venice Way), Fridays 7 to 11 a.m.; Encino (17400 Victory Blvd.), Sundays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Long Beach Marina (Marina Drive just south of 2nd Street), Sundays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Santa Monica (Main Street at Ocean Park Boulevard) 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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