Cameron Slocum, the Eastside Tomato King + His One-Man Urban Farm
Ted Soqui Slocum in his kingdom
Heavy lies the head that wears the crown, especially when said metaphorical crown goes with the title Eastside Tomato King.
Cameron Slocum could be dealing modern furniture or hustling to create and sell his own avant-garde artworks -- things the 53-year-old has done before -- or he could have sought out any number of other financially fruitful and moderately stable endeavors that match his robust energy and bohemian-raconteur personality.
Instead, he has chosen for the last few years to farm full-time on a plot of land in notably hilly Lincoln Heights, just a few miles from downtown L.A., and sell his top-notch raw produce and prepared-food products to restaurants, stores and farmers markets around Los Angeles.
Slocum's exquisite vegetables are of interest to foodies, and his past as a minor 1980s L.A. art star makes him an interesting and offbeat character -- his colorful hand-painted Volvo station wagon reads "Eastside Tomato King." But his story also is greatly connected to profound economic realities not everyone is aware of, realities within professional agriculture and experienced by businesses and homeowners everywhere who struggle with recession economics.
"This is why it's Cam's Tomato Kingdom," says the tall, reddish-blond Slocum, who looks like the art-school version of Metallica frontman James Hetfield, as he gestures around the steep, scrubby hillside behind his house. "It was very much about: How do you create your own kingdom?"
The idea for Slocum's "Tomato Kingdom" germinated 25 years ago, when he started growing a few tomatoes on the roof of a downtown loft. Then four years ago, he heard KCRW food host Evan Kleiman talk about two South Bay guys who grew 600 tomato plants. He bet a friend that he could grow 600 plants.
Slocum found that the steep, rather exotically wild terrain behind his Lincoln Heights house could be crudely terraced enough to sustain ample growing, and three years ago he began selling wholesale produce to upscale restaurants including Campanile, Water Grill, Barbrix and Lazy Ox Canteen. Incidentally, it was the watershed hit art show of his photo-paintings, for which he earned $16,200, that enabled him to put a down payment on his current house back in 1986.
His crop list includes artichokes, Swiss chard, carrots, radishes, turnips, cucumbers -- both pickling and slicing -- string beans, chayote, tomatillos, eggplant, onions, garlic, four kinds of peppers, two kinds of squash, cantaloupes and, of course, five varietals of tomatoes.
Last year, after realizing that selling whole vegetables was not profitable enough at such a small scale, Slocum started making prepared-food products, for which he could get quadruple the price per pound. He takes pride in his products -- a variety of pickles, salsas and gazpachos that he makes at a certified kitchen in Atwater Village under official permission from the California Agricultural Commission.
Up on the dusty, diagonally tipped farmland on a recent afternoon, he pulls from a plastic cooler a prototype bruschetta mix and offers it on small rounds of bread. It is supremely fresh, the finely diced tomatoes the deepest red, the flavor simultaneously slightly sweet, heartily savory and sufficiently tangy.
"The Eastside Tomato King is a character I created," says Slocum, who was born in Glendale and attended art school at UC San Diego.
If his pronouncements sometimes sound as philosophically abstract as those of Marshall McLuhan or Camille Paglia, the hard, cut-and-dried facts Slocum now faces are as real as the soil under his feet. While he's currently adding a third farmers market to his route, and is in the process of getting his pickles (Cam's SoCal Pickles) into Whole Foods, he is facing a financial implosion: foreclosure.
The numbers -- mortgage, bills, business capital on one side, farming revenue on the other -- just were not adding up while he was in the vulnerable ramping-up period faced by most new businesses. Slocum has not paid his mortgage for more than 18 months. The earliest date for foreclosure on his first mortgage is Oct. 27, although according to his calculations it could be as late as April 24.
"Right now I'm making more money every week," he says. "Once I add a fourth farmers market I'll be making more than the lowest Hollywood crew member -- like a location scout."
Slocum says he could rent out two-thirds of his house, retaining a modest corner living area for himself. Then if the bank would tack the 18 months of back rent he owes onto a 30-year mortgage, the financial situation could be rectified and he could pay his mortgage going forward.
"But they won't," he says. "The government is not really making the banks play ball."
Slocum was stunned to learn of the scope of financial meltdown occurring in his own neighborhood -- a multi-ethnic, working- and middle-class enclave of historic homes, green parks, spectacular hills and USC's L.A. County hospital and gleaming medical school. The guy behind the counter at his post office told him they see 50 foreclosures a week in that ZIP code.
Months ago, Slocum began farming on a half-acre of his neighbor's adjacent hillside plot in order to avoid a business interruption after the final day of foreclosure. He also is speaking with a charter school a few properties away about using some of the school's hillside acreage.
Slocum trudges farther up the hill, above his crops, over a low, dilapidated boundary fence, and glories in the even more exotic view and rural-looking surroundings. "That's wild fennel," he exclaims, pointing, "and that's a wild grapevine. There's deer and coyotes up here. I'm trying to figure out how to make a pickle with those wild nopals."
Slocum waves his hand at the view. Mount Washington, downtown skyscrapers, the edges of Griffith and Elysian parks and parts of the L.A. Basin and the Valley are all visible in the midafternoon light. "This is why I grow here."
Slocum is sharing his story and accepting financial help at savecamsfarm.com.