LA Chefs’ Supplier: Alexander Weiser of Weiser Family Farms

(Originally published October 16, 2015 on Examiner.com).

To better support farms and what they grow, chefs should also include beer mugs and shot glasses serving beer and spirits from their bars in addition to any “third plates” serving food from their kitchens. Why? Because artisan beer makers and distillers, in addition to artisan bread and noodle makers, help create demand and a market for the cover crops, which are required to rebuild soils and would otherwise be disked into the ground as “green manure” to improve soil tilth and fertility.

Vegetable farms and fruit orchards are man made agro‐ecosystems. When cash crops are picked or pulled out of the ground, the nutrients that soils exchange with the plants via root systems and millions of soil microbes, are also depleted. Cover crops as part of crop rotations help to re‐nourish these depleted soils. Cover crops as part of crop rotations also help break pest cycles, so they are important tools when utilizing integrated pest management [IPM] principles. However, often the price received for cover crops like barley and other grains aren’t worth the time and effort to harvest, since commodity varieties of these crops in the Midwest set such a low price. Small producers simply can’t compete with the large industrial farms.

When artisans, including distillers and bread, noodle and pasta makers, seek out better strains of barley, rye, wheat and oats for their spirits, beer, bread and noodles, farmers can then afford to harvest these crops. Higher prices are paid by artisans for better and unique products that reflect their respective terroirs. Thus culinary artisans provide another revenue stream for farms to utilize both main cash crops and the accompanying cover crops to generate income. So artisan and cottage industries make farming more viable by providing additional revenue streams.

Earlier in California, starting in the early 1980s, farmers markets also made farming more viable for small producers of fruits and vegetables. Farmers markets connected small producers with end users including, and especially, chefs. Not only did these connections make small farms viable, these connections provided chefs with many unique and flavorful ingredients that were not previously available from large retailers or wholesalers. One of those small producers back then was Alexander Weiser from Weiser Family Farms. Alex’s early customers included Chefs Michael McCartney from Michael’s, Nancy Silverton, and Mark Peel as well as many of Silverton and Peel’s disciples. Later Weiser Family Farm customers included and continue to include a virtual Who’s Who of LA Chefs: Suzanne Goins, Josiah Citrin, Michael Cimarusti, Neal Fraser, Bruce Kalman, Brian Dunsmoor, Kris Tominaga, Ray Garcia and many others.

But back then in the eighties when Alex Weiser started selling at markets, there was no specialty produce and no Food Network on television. Restaurants back then shipped product in from all over the place: Not local, sourcing was the opposite. Things came in from far away.

Alex’s father, Sid, was a teacher and counselor at Fairfield HS in East LA. He was getting close to retirement age and always wanted a farm. Sid was up in Tehachapi and noticed a 160-acre farm for sale. He looked at it. This farm had apple trees that were still alive. He bought this piece of land and turned it back into a working orchard. Things didn’t go so well. The farm lost money. The dream of farming wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. They tried agricultural tourism where visitors picked their own apples.

Then farmer markets started in 1981. Alex was 17 at that time and already going to college. Sid told him that taking the apples to these newly created farmers markets was a good way to pay for college. That’s how Alex discovered the farmers markets and got connected with end users who really appreciated flavor. Alex noted when dealing with wholesale brokers, it was always “your apples are too pink” or some other complaint. There was always something they tried to do to get farmers to reduce prices. Alex’s family realized this, and also realized that farmers markets were the best part of their business particularly with cash flow.

Farmers markets made him and his family feel good about what they were doing (and continue to do). People appreciated their products and efforts. So Weiser Family Farms got diversified with a greater variety of produce that they specifically grew for the chefs that came to the farmers markets.

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To better service family markets as noted in part one of this profile, Weiser Family Farms became more diversified. In order for Weiser Family Farms to become more diversified, Alex Weiser’s father Sid sold the first 160-acre farm they originally purchased. That Brite Valley farm had really just become a write‐off. It was in the next valley over, the Tehachapi Valley, that Sid bought the new property, which local fruit growers refer to as “the banana belt” of the Tehachapi area. By banana belt, they mean that farms in this microclimate are in warmer spot with reduced changes of damaging spring frosts. The original 160-acre parcel was in the low point of the Brite Valley, and experienced frequent frost damage. The new farm is in a slightly elevated location, allowing colder, heavier air to flow downward and away from the farm in both directions. The soil is also fertile and has excellent drainage. This farm was actually a peach orchard plus also had apple and cherry trees. The peach trees were about 40 years old, which is older than typical commercial orchards – the trees tend to lose productivity after 20 or 25 years.

Alex’s family grew peaches and apples for a while. Then as Alex learned about the area and the growing history of Tehachapi, he discovered new things to grow. The Tehachapi Mountains had a history of growing potatoes. So his family started to grow acres of potatoes. Potatoes are more forgiving than fruit trees, and not susceptible to frost or wind damage. Thus they had better success with potatoes and row crops than they had with fruit trees. They’re now a diversified farm, but their main crops –like potatoes and other root crops – have been the most successful.

Alex stated: “On each of our properties, we grow what seems best suited to the growing conditions, and that provides a competitive advantage. Don’t grow the most challenging thing — grow what grows best. And up here in Tehachapi, that’s how we got into potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and other root vegetables that actually like the winter frost and terroir. Right now is a big time to plant our winter carrots, crones, celery root and others, and we’re planting a lot of broccoli and sprouts. So this is a really cool-weather growing area. This is a niche.”

Just 20 miles south or east of the Tehachapi location, it’s 20 degrees hotter. Around November, they get frost at night. That frost, according to Alex, is what gives flavor. Plants love the temperature swing from 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit at night up to 80-85 degrees during the day. Alex said, “It is like a person going up and down a hill every day. Your heart gets strong. Your cardiovascular system gets stronger. You can take in more oxygen. Same things with the plants, the more stress — hot and cold – the more character and flavor.”

So in addition to having good soil and water, farmers also have to grow what grows best where they’re farming, particularly taking into account the daily temperatures and temperature swings. In Tehachapi, farmers are not going to grow good lemons there even on good soil — those lemons would die from winter freezes that can dip into single digits. Alex reiterated, “Grow what grows best in your area.” Tehachapi is a cool growing area so potatoes and carrots do well there, so that’s what Weiser Family Farms sticks with. This is a unique climate. It’s a mountain valley at 4,380 feet above sea level. It is like having an East Coast property in California. Up there, they get four seasons including frost and snow. Weiser Family Farms grows their eggplants and melons down the hill in Lucerne Valley where it is much hotter. The lower desert areas in California also have earlier growing seasons. Different areas have different advantages for growing different crops. So soil, water and the weather all factor into farming decisions.

Weiser Family Farms test their soil every year. It is just good practice. The soil at the Tehachapi location is really good soil. This soil is a lot different and much darker than many other western soils. This difference, in part, is due to being in a mountain valley. A lot of soils in many other agricultural areas in California are in interior valleys, or deserts where there is little rainfall and not much organic matter in the soil. The Weisers’ Tehachapi farm gets more rainfall, which means more growth and thus more organic matter in the soil than in farmland at lower elevations. There are a lot of advantages to their soil, but like anything it requires maintenance, so crop rotations are used to sustain and rebuild soil nutrients.

Regarding water, they have wells and a turn out providing Ag water from nearby Brite Lake, which is part of the State Water Project. Though the water situation is different on each property, in general they rely on wells that go down 400 feet. On each property where they farm, they’re not dependent on water being delivered to them. So they’re in good locations plus have great well water that’s drinking water quality. On the main farm in Tehachapi, they’ve also installed an underground drip irrigation system to better utilize the water they have. In the Lucerne Valley, it is a desert but the water flows underground from the San Bernardino Mountains and is also really clean water. No wells have gone dry. Generally they haven’t had to dig deeper wells except for one spot where they had an old well. They’re very fortunate with their water situation plus the water district they’re in is well managed. Some water districts aren’t well-managed primarily in the San Joaquin Valley where water is delivered. Some people who have water rights aren’t farming and they’re selling their water to other farmers. It’s a water racket.

Though Alex didn’t refer to the organic certification process as another racket, considering what’s involved, he could have. Alex noted that Weiser Family Farms was registered organic for many years but didn’t have the infrastructure in place to continue to handle such a certification process because it takes a lot of paperwork, though Weiser Family Farms has always farmed in accordance with organic principles. Besides they were selling everything they were growing, so they decided to invest instead in building their Weiser Family Farms’ brand. Now that Weiser Family Farms has grown and become well-established, and Alex has additional help from his nieces and a nephew who are now old enough to help with all the paperwork, Weiser Family Farms is in the process of becoming certified organic.

Because of a lot of food borne illnesses that have been happening throughout the country, now if a farmer wants to sell wholesale, many supermarkets, restaurants and hotels are now requiring that the farm has to be GAP certified. GAP or “good agricultural practices” also includes a lot of paperwork. A lot of this paperwork is the same paperwork needed for organic certification, so Alex and his team already were doing the required record keeping. Now that Weiser Family Farms is selling wholesale to some of these GAP-requiring retailers, they decided that this was another good reason to just go ahead and certify organic. So they’re doing their first 80 acres in Lucerne Valley which will be certified organic by the end of the year or the beginning of next year. The issue with certification is not necessarily the cost of writing the check for the certification. Rather the primary problem is the labor involved. It is a job. A third party checks the farm’s growing records so everything has to be documented. If something isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.

So just a lot of documentation. Alex noted, “They [the third party verifiers] aren’t in your soil, they’re in your office checking your paperwork. Now when we harvest something, we can trace it back to the field where we picked it for recalls if there is ever a food safety issue.“

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Crop rotations and adding compost are part of farming and the certification process. In order to avoid any problems with compost, for food safety reasons,Weiser Family Farms purchases certified compost produced in the region to use on their farmland in Tehachapi Valley. Crop rotations are also a way to manage weeds, break pest cycles and rebuild soil nutrients which reduces some reliance on pesticides. There are various ways to deal with pests. Sometimes they put in plants to attract bugs as a trap crop. With root vegetables, the problems mainly are soil diseases and blight issues. Insects are an issue with the brassica crops. Aphids really like those, so they plant insectaries every tenth row, which are a mixture of buckwheat and dill where beneficial insects live. These beneficial insects eat the pests or bad bugs.

Alex noted though “Organics use more pesticides than conventional crops because organic pesticides are not systemic. What you spray, you have to spray once a week. If you’re using a chemical that is systemic, you use it once and it kills everything… Our harshest spray for really bad infestations is Pyrethrum, which is made from chrysanthemum root. It still kills bugs but it is from chrysanthemum root. So we’re not using petroleum-based insecticides. Most sprays, you can pick the same day you spray. Organic doesn’t mean you’re not spraying. Spraying isn’t a bad word, but I don’t want to spray any more than I have to because it’s time, labor, work and money. What we spray on is a lot of microbes. We do a lot of soil drenches with microbes. But it still considered spraying. That’s applying beneficial microbes. There are list of things you can use. And now that organic is a billion dollar business, the chemical companies are also selling organic sprays and these are organic chemicals not synthetic ones.”

According to Alex, farmers also always want to keep their ground occupied with some kind of plants. That’s why he’s really excited about the grain project they’re doing up in Tehachapi because it really helps them grow better carrots and potatoes. The grains are a crop rotation that rebuilds soil fertility. So a section of his farm that’s growing carrots this year, was grain last year, and potatoes the years before that. On a different section of the property, barley was part of their rotation that they harvested. The Tehachapi farm has a lot of different growing areas within close proximity all of which are rotated.

Weiser Family Farms has grown barley, wheat, and other grains as part of their crop rotations to build soil for a long time, but these grains haven’t been crops to harvest, sell or market. They were cover crops that they turned under into the soil as a green manure. Sometimes they’d harvest these cover crops if there was a great price but again these cover crops were mainly for soil building for the cash crops. They’d lose money growing the grains out, and harvesting them. Alex explained, “People think of grain as Midwest grain. If I grew grain, I’d have to sell it at the ‘this is what we’re paying for grain’ commodity prices in the Midwest. They’re not necessarily concerned about taste or special baking qualities. Again it’s a commodity.”

But now that there are artisanal distillers, brewers, bakers and pasta makers who want to make the best product that they can, they don’t want the Midwesterner glyphosate desiccated wheat and other grains. These artisans want better grains, in the same way that 25 years earlier, thanks to farmers markets, chefs and other end users wanted better heirloom tomatoes. So now due to this artisan demand, there is a better return for all of these grain cover crops. Farmers are getting better prices so it makes more economic sense to harvest the grains. With unique, higher quality and specialty grains, Weiser Family Farms is no longer competing with Midwestern commodity crops.

Being in a mountain valley, Weiser’s Tehachapi farms get more rain than any area around their farm. The area historically use to be a grain belt area. So dry land (unirrigated) rye, barley, oats, and wheat can be grown most years. A lot of the land in this mountain valley could be grown in grains and once was. California was known as “The Golden State” not just because of the Mother Lode gold discoveries, but also because of golden fields of grain. The quality of the grains is superior here in California. But farmers can also grow nectarines and strawberries so higher value crops won out. In the Midwest, corn, soybeans and grain can be grown so that’s where farmers grow it. There are millions of acres of grain in the Midwest in mass production.

Grain, like fruits, vegetables and other crops, are distinctive. Grains have flavor and characteristics based on where they’re grown. Alex elaborated, “Glenn Roberts from Anson Mills helped us out and gave us our first grain to plant and to do some testing. We sent it back to him and he raved about the quality. We sent it to chefs who baked with it. We got great feedback. That’s what we want out future to be: to supply chefs, bakers, brewers and millers like Grist & Toll in Pasadena. For now, I gave them a sack. I just don’t have that much since I’m just growing an acre. I just grew the grain to try it out, test it and get the flavor profiles. Plus now I have seed. Now I can grow 10 acres. From that 10 acres, I can produce enough seed to plant 200 acres.”

But growing is the easy part. No big company is going to harvest 10 acres or 40 acres or even 80 acres. Alex explained you have to get it harvested, and then the seed cleaned. Alex noted the closest place to his farm to get seed cleaned is in Lompoc and there they had to wait because that location does its own grain first – and it’s a six-hour roundtrip away. So Alex started the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project with his neighbor and longtime friend Jon Hammond on the adjoining farm. They started a crowd funding campaign onGoFundMe, and are about to launch an Indigogo campaign with rewards from cooking schools and restaurants. The Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project’s goal is to get a combine, seed drills, seed cleaners and silos in order to build the infrastructure required for grain production not only for their own farms but also for other small growers in the area, who then will be able to grow five acres because there is a place to get their seed cleaned. They’ll even harvest for them, now that there will be a place to process it.

In regards to why Alex chose to do a crowd funding campaign, Alex stated, “I can’t self‐finance everything, and if we had a couple seed drills, we could make one available to others farmers. It’s going to help people with pieces of land who don’t have any water. It’s like ‘Mary, I’m going to plant your 10 acres in rye. I’ll clean up your property. Disk it up and pay your property taxes. So it is going to help other landowners whose land has been sitting there doing nothing and just going to create supply of a high quality crop.”

So much comes from grain: pasta, bread, beer, and alcohol. Alex has especially getting a lot of calls from distillers including local distillers who want rye for whisky. So there is demand out there. Though if the price isn’t good, now instead of turning those grains under, he feeds them to the livestock he’s been raising with his friend Jon Hammond on Jon’s farm right down the road. Alex’s customers buy his potatoes, so he decided to sell them meat to go with those potatoes. There is a big demand for high quality meats from sustainably raised animals. Currently they’re raising heritage pigs (Gloucester Old Spots), sheep, goats, laying hens, and ducks. They’re going to start raising rabbits too. Eggs from the laying hens right now are being used for workshops on the farm, but these might start being sold at farmers markets. As for the grains sold to distillers and brewery, some of those grains are returned, like spent beer barley from El Segundo Beer Brewery, to mix into and extend the barley used as animal feed. So not only are crops fully used for food production, but so are some of the crop by‐products that otherwise would just be food waste.

The recently enacted Cottage Food Act that became effective at the start of 2013 has helped to further create artisan end users looking for higher quality grains. This isn’t dissimilar to when former (and current) Governor Jerry Brown enacted legislation in 1978 allowing for Certified Farmers Markets in California. Alex recalled, “If it wasn’t for farmers markets, I wouldn’t be farming.” So the Cottage Food Act also gives a small cottage businesses a place to start, plan, test and perfect. Then these businesses grow.

Before there were farmers markets, farmers had to have a million dollars to start something and then be big or they didn’t have a place to sell. Farmers markets gave (and continue to give) a place to build a business for small entrepreneurs who could get immediate feedback from their customers, and then scale up. If small businesses need a million dollars to do anything, no one is starting a new business. So the same thing is occurring with this artisan homestead movement that occurred previously with farmers. The Cottage Food Act is creating future entrepreneurs. Many of these entrepreneurs are artisans who will be looking to source better grains for their products. So The Cottage Food Act is also creating future customers for Weiser Family Farms.

To further nurture these relationships with these future artisan entrepreneurs, Alex and Jon conduct workshops on their farms. They have plans to expand these workshops using only products from their farms like barley for beer, wheat for bread and noodle making classes, as well as milk, eggs and pork for dinner and food related events. So through these various events, and the connections Weiser Family Farms has made over the years with chefs and other end users at farmers markets, Weiser Family Farms has developed a customer base for its full range of farm products including its fruits, vegetables and grain cover crops. Thus to fully support farms, chefs need to fill their third plates with locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as bread, pasta and other noodles made from locally grown grains. Chefs also need to include vessels as part of their place settings to fill with beer and spirits from their bars made by artisans who are also using the locally grown rye, barley, oats and wheat.

Weiser Family Farms is at various markets in the Los Angeles region including the Santa Monica, Mar Vista, and Hollywood Farms Markets on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Weiser Family Farms full market schedule may be found on their website.

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