Urban Farming: Or, How to Start a Farmers Market Stand With Your Backyard Citrus Trees, or Not
There's a wheelbarrow in the kitchen. How it got there doesn't bear thinking about. The moment for thought is long gone. With every bang of my shin on the barrow, it dawns on me that this is only the first load of many of oranges, lemons and tangerines that needs picking, trimming, washing, drying, sizing and packing in the 18 hours before I debut at the Altadena Farmers Market.
The good news is that my hands no longer hurt. The bad news? They have no sensation whatsoever.
Folly this painful generally starts with an oversight. In my case, it was a 2011 move to an Altadena house where the enormous backyard held the remnants of an old citrus farm. I took the majestic orange, lemon and tangerine trees as little more than scenery when signing the deed. Soon, however, catching the fruit proved the single most difficult job in the garden. Letting it hang ripe indefinitely on the trees or molder on the ground was only an option if I wanted rats.
As a new crop of Valencia oranges began to ripen early this summer, I was on the verge of calling in a nonprofit founded expressly to unburden homeowners of excess fruit, when a friend suggested that I sell the citrus instead. A new farmers market was opening on Wednesday afternoons in nearby Loma Alta Park. The organizers were keen to integrate booths operated by professionals from Ventura and the San Joaquin Valley with stalls stocked by local "urban farmers."
The term "urban farmer" makes me wince. I am to a farmer what a school nurse is to a brain surgeon. However, it's also clear why we need the tag. The term "gardening" in Los Angeles has been reduced to little more than growing grass, mowing it and throwing away the clippings. While I don't do that, my garden was still far too wasteful. Overwhelmed by the old citrus trees, I'd lost count of how many barrels of delicious fruit I'd wheeled to the compost pit.
When the conservationists behind the launch of the farmers market offered the opportunity to check this waste, I registered with the county under the trading name "Old Soldier Citrus." After paying for registration and buying a shade tent (total roughly $200), I calculated that after a couple of weeks, I might even make enough to pay a water bill or two.
"It's only one day's work a week," I told myself.
That would have been true if fruit picked, trimmed, washed, graded, sized and packed itself. The day before Old Soldier was to debut, I stood perilously high up a tall ladder, pruners in one hand, a recalcitrant Eureka lemon tree limb in the other. A half-full sack of fruit tugged at my shoulder. Spindly old wood from dried branches tore at my forearms. Squinting through deadwood, live wood, leaves and spiderwebs, I was reduced to making blind cuts, hoping I didn't harvest my fingers.
If oranges and lemons are very ripe, they can be tugged from the stem. However, pulling the fruit -- particularly with claw-head picking poles -- can mean that you'll also harvest stem, leaves, blossoms and often unripe fruit with it. This damages the tree and intensifies the trimming job during packing. So I preferred hand-pruning from a ladder.
The day before market, by the end of the afternoon in which I'd imagined I'd have all the picking done, I'd only finished one tree, the Eureka. What lemons were gleaned still needed washing, drying, sizing and packing. Overwhelmed at the sight of the wheelbarrow in the kitchen, I squeezed two oranges, added some peach syrup and diced chili pepper, poured the mix over ice, added two fingers of bourbon and named it an Old Soldier.
"Now this I could sell," I thought, making myself another.
Starting at dawn the next morning, I managed a barrow each of Valencia oranges and Meyer lemons. By the time a friend arrived in the early afternoon to help me pack up the car and set up the stall, I had six crates of citrus. None of it had been off the tree for more than 24 hours. All of it had been cleaned, trimmed, packed with newspaper to protect it from bruising and mold, and finished with fanciful tufts of colored paper.
Attitudes toward pricing vary among urban farmers. My objective was to move fruit rather than compost it, so I priced my citrus more cheaply than Trader Joe's: $1.25 per pound for Eurekas, $1.50 for Meyers, $1 for Valencia oranges, with every bag weighed to make sure it was over and never under on the scale.
Once set up at the market, as my friend and I stood behind our fruit, it was fascinating to watch passing shoppers make eye contact with the citrus but not us, never us. I've leveled the same noncommittal gaze countless times at countless markets. As a shopper, I've long wondered if even taking a tasting sample leads to indebtedness to purchase. As a vendor, I realize now, it doesn't. All vendors want is for you to give them a shot. Even when tides of local teens swept through a-sampling, my stallmate and I didn't mind. "How nice to see youth eating fruit," my friend quipped.
Because Altadena is part of L.A. County's historic citrus belt, I worried that selling oranges here would be a case of coals to Newcastle. Yet for every shopper who apologized that they had their own Valencia tree at home, two more tasted the sample wedges as if they had never eaten an orange before. The vibrant flavor of the day-fresh oranges sent all of our Valencias flying off the shelves. By the end of four hours, the oranges were long gone and the remaining lemons were being bartered with fellow stallholders for oysters, bread, eggs and some superb semi-hard sheep's milk cheese.
As my friend and I packed up the tent, trestle table and empty boxes, I was stupefied by exhaustion. Sensation had come back to my formerly numb hands, which now throbbed. We'd made all of $90 for two days of excruciatingly hard work.
Back at home, the kitchen-turned-packing house was a shambles. I would have an Old Soldier, maybe two, before cleaning. My friend asked where she should put the tent and table. "Leave it in the car," I said. We'd need it when we went back next week.
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