Purple artichokes at the Santa Monica farmers market. (David Karp / For The Times )
Spring is prime season not only for asparagus, favas and strawberries, but for new farmers markets, which often open at this time in the hope of gaining traction before the peak of sales in summer. One of the first of this year's new crop is the Wellington Square farmers market, located in the parking lot of its sponsor, the Smyrna Seventh-Day Adventist church, in the Mid-City district. Although there are other markets not too far away, including two, FAME and Adams and Vermont, that also are sponsored by churches, Lora Davis, a resident of the Wellington Square neighborhood, longed for a more local market, and decided to open one herself.
The Seventh-Day Adventist church historically has emphasized the importance of a healthful diet — its early adherents were among the first promoters of breakfast cereal as a health food — so it's natural for it to help provide access to fresh produce. Since many church members refrain from meat and caffeine, the vendors do not sell these items at this market; even the Corn Maiden stand, which sells tamales with pork and chicken at other markets, displays a sign here saying "vegetarian only."
So far the market has 10 certified produce vendors, enough to cover the basics, and seven prepared foods stalls. Davis, the manager, was lucky to get Daisy Tamai of Tamai Farms, a high-quality vegetable grower from Oxnard. These days she's got beautifully fresh Bloomingdale heirloom spinach, as well as winter greens like cabbage, kale, collards, and chard.
In her truck, Tamai also brings the produce for Green Family Farms of Lompoc, for which she sells at the Santa Monica Wednesday market. This farm, with its signature crops of artichokes, asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower, is a familiar presence at many farmers markets, but its history is complex and little understood by shoppers.
In brief, Phil Green, now 55, grew up in Lompoc; from a young age, he says, all he wanted to do was drive a tractor. For many years he called his operation Green Farms; then he joined Bob Campbell, who farms thousands of acres in Lompoc and sold under the name Suncoast Farms (not to be confused with a different farm based in Santa Maria called Sun Coast Farms). He eventually split up with Campbell, who took over selling at many of their markets, such as Culver City, Torrance and Beverly Hills, keeping the Suncoast name. Green called his operation, downsized to about 65 acres, Green Family Farms, and last year started using yet another name, Life's a Choke. To top it off, pretty soon he'll be moving his farm to Los Osos, west of San Luis Obispo. The only market in the Southland that he attends personally is Santa Clarita.
Whatever one might think of his latest choice in nomenclature, Green grows excellent vegetables, particularly his baby Fiesole purple artichokes, which have a flavor more intense than his standard green Lyon variety. When full-grown, the Fiesole variety remains a gorgeous purple splashed with green, but it has a slightly less rich flavor than when young.
Santiago Santillan, who farms on the south side of the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, really looks like a farmer, with a cowboy hat, an impressive white mustache and huge calloused hands. The calluses come in handy, for he takes a macho delight in picking up with bare hands his bristling nopales, cactus paddles with vicious thorns, and stinging nettles.