Agritourism: How to Eat Local in Los Angeles

Forage, a Los Angeles eatery that offers simple dishes made from local produce. Courtesy Forage Forage
By Melinda Quintero

Mention Los Angeles, and you probably think beach, palm trees, and concrete. Despite urban sprawl and chronic drought, the city's mild weather is ideally suited to urban farming. And as savvy diners across the nation demand more hyper-local food, Los Angeles is reimagining some of its urban space as viable farmland.

Visiting or volunteering at these farms or dining at these restaurants is the ideal way to get to know the people who strongly believe that Los Angeles should be churning out locally grown produce. Meet the people set on bringing homegrown food back to Los Angeles.

Photo Caption: Forage, a Los Angeles eatery that offers simple dishes made with local ingredients. Courtesy Forage
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Vital Zuman Sustainable Farm in Malibu. Melinda Quintero
Since 1955, the Vital Zuman Sustainable Farm has been growing fruits and vegetables on six acres of Malibu land, just south of Zuma. Owner Alan Cunningham grew up working on Vital Zuman with his parents, who started the farm and its small store as a hobby. As the land's faithful steward, Cunningham uses certified natural growing methods along with water from the land's natural and chemical-free well to produce a seasonal bounty for his store, farm subscribers, and several local restaurants, including the Inn of the Seventh Ray.

Noted for growing figs, Vital Zuman runs largely on volunteer power, which fosters a grassroots-style community investment in the farm. Day volunteers are welcome to help harvest veggies and fruit from 10am to 2pm daily; ask about long-term volunteer opportunities.

Contact Cunningham the day before to discuss your interests and how you can help. Volunteers typically leave with a bag of fresh greens and a few pieces of fruit. Though Cunningham prefers long-term volunteers, there's always work to be done even if you only have a day. Fill out your beach picnic with the best of the day's pickings from the farm stand. A variety of delicious jams, pickles, and honey from the site's beehive are also for sale. Expect small events at the farm around the equinox and solstice.

More Info: 29127 Pacific Coast Hwy; tel. 310/457-4356; www.vitalzuman.com; Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; call to see if open Monday

Photo Caption: Vital Zuman Sustainable Farm in Malibu.
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A line at Forage, a Los Angeles eatery that focuses on food made with local ingredients. Courtesy Forage Forage
Chef Jason Kim opened Forage with an uncomplicated idea: create a simple eatery that serves only locally grown ingredients with a menu determined by the seasons. His years working as sous chef at Lucques meant he was on a first-name basis with many of the farmers at the city's markets who commute from the vast farmland outside of Los Angeles.

But Kim soon realized that the city itself was his greatest resource, with delicious food growing in people's backyards. Kim invited L.A.'s home gardeners and urban farmers to bring in their freshest produce for potential use in the restaurant.

The first week Kim put out the call for "foraged" food, he met a small handful of gardeners. Then the next week, a few more came, and so on. The interest in offering home-grown produce to the restaurant grew so big that at its recent peak, Kim estimates about 30% of all the ingredients served at Forage -- from citrus to bok choy -- came from local backyards (the rest comes from California commercial organic farms). Kim was astounded by the variety and quality of the produce, while the gardeners were eager to simply give their produce instead of dumping the excess as they had in years past.

The program hit a bureaucratic snag when the Health Department reminded Forage that all food must come from a certified source. Now, five of Kim's strongest growers have become certified farmers and continue to offer Forage the best from their gardens. Kim inadvertently started a new model for urban farming and local dining: the "farm" that's the farthest away is in Santa Monica; the closest is down the street.

Forage offers simple dishes (main courses $11-$20) that showcase the natural flavors of the ingredients. A plate of beans becomes earthy and complex when made from heirloom Cannellini; fresh veggies stay crisp and light even when generously cooked in olive oil. The menu changes frequently, according to the seasons and based on what Kim's farmers bring in.

More Info:
3823 W Sunset Blvd.; tel. 323/663-6885; www.foragela.com

Photo Caption: A line at Forage, a Los Angeles eatery that focuses on food made from local produce. Courtesy Forage
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Edendale Farm in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Melinda Quintero
Surrounded by affluent homes and considered one of east L.A.'s most desirable neighborhoods, Silver Lake is also the unlikely home of an urban farm experiment.

David Kahn has been living above the Silver Lake reservoir for 15 years, but over the last five, he has transformed his half-acre backyard into Edendale Farm and permaculture site. Kahn started out as an architect with an interest in sustainable living; now, his property is brimming with veggies, herbs, citrus, and chickens. He also collects rainwater and irrigates with a grey-water system. But Kahn does not portray himself as a farmer -- he says Edendale grows "community first, then soil, then food." He hopes his project serves as inspiration for sustainable living everywhere.

Edendale hosts a variety of classes and events like cooking, composting, yoga, and movie screenings. The first Sunday of the month is a two-hour tour of the farm that starts at 10am; call first to let Kahn know you're coming.

Contact the farm directly for a calendar of events; small donations may be suggested for events. Visitors who want to devote serious time to hands-on learning with Kahn can apply to be a WWOOF (www.wwoof.org) volunteer; Kahn typically has between two and six volunteers at a time.

More Info:
2131 Moreno Drive, Silver Lake; tel. 323/454-3447; www.edendalefarm.com

Photo Caption: Edendale Farm in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
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Jason Boarde, the founder of the Pedal Patch Community in Los Angeles, plants seeds. Melinda Quintero
Pedal Patch Community, or PPC, is a non-profit organization in support of home gardeners. Founder Jason Boarde encountered a similar conundrum as Jason Kim at Forage: L.A. has hundreds, if not thousands, of gardeners who simply can't consume or give away all of their homegrown produce. Yet, the city's markets and food banks rely on outside sources for the vast majority of food.

Certified grower Boarde collects the surplus from participating gardens and gives it to several local food banks while providing gardeners with advice and volunteers to help maintain the beds. The PPC oversees more than 20 gardens throughout Los Angeles, and has partnered with charities to develop gardens specifically suited to their needs. The organization, for example, helped develop the small garden attached to Church + State, which provides the restaurant with some of its own herbs and veggies.

The PPC hosts lectures, discussions, and meals on the garden rooftop of its downtown office. Check the website for a schedule of events. Several PPC home gardeners also open their doors to volunteers each week. Founder Boarde is on-site at most volunteer sessions. Volunteer work lasts about an hour and ranges from simple garden maintenance to planting and tilling.

More Info: PPC; www.pedalpatchcommunity.com. Sign up for the PPC newsletter at volunteer@pedalpatchcommunity.com.

Photo Caption: Jason Boarde, the founder of the Pedal Patch Community in Los Angeles, plants seeds.
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Fallen Fruit's EATLACMA exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Melinda Quintero
For a hint of the city's agricultural past, stroll around residential neighborhoods such as Echo Park, Los Feliz, and Silver Lake. Watch for an abundance of citrus and fruit trees -- from oranges and lemons to avocados and olives -- growing in front yards, sidewalks, and parks. The artists collaboration Fallen Fruit (www.fallenfruit.org) has mapped several city neighborhoods according to what fruit is growing on public land, making it free for the picking (maps available online).

Collaborator Matias Viegener says that when Fallen Fruit started six years ago, exploring local neighborhoods for public fruit was a radical and fringe idea. And yet, the fruit was always there, right in front of the public's eyes. Fallen Fruit simply works to remind locals that yes, it is edible and good for you, too. Fallen Fruit has annual fruit walks and seasonal public jams, where residents combine their foraged fruit to experiment with making jam.

For their year-long exhibit and food growing experiment, EATLACMA (at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Fallen Fruit has mapped all the fruit found in the museum's collection and curated several edible gardens among the museum buildings: a pyramid of crates in a pond is fostering everything needed for fish tacos; a lowly potato patch grows several heirloom varieties; sickly strawberry plants hooked to IVs are nursed back to health.

Fallen Fruit intends for the entire museum to become a permaculture site, combining agriculture, community, art, and innovation within one of the city's greatest cultural institutions.

EATLACMA culminates on Nov. 7, 2010, with a day-long gathering of artists and the public for performances, talks, a total reimagining of the museum's campus and collections -- and fish tacos.

Photo Caption: Fallen Fruit's EATLACMA exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
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