An urban farm grows in Los Angeles. You can be a part of it.
Finding the Avenue 33 Farm is a serious challenge. Plug the address into GPS and you end up on a steep residential street packed with older, neatly landscaped homes. To the west, downtown L.A. fills the horizon and, to the south, your destination looks like a modest home with a slightly scruffy frontyard and a long, sloping driveway that ends with a carport.
How can this be the site of a farm?
The answer lies above, an arduous climb up the hill behind the home of farmers Ali Greer and Eric Tomassini, past the covered patio, with the new walk-in refrigerator Tomassini built the week before, past barrels of rainwater and flats of seedlings waiting to be planted, up another set of stairs to an acre-wide sprawl of flowers, tomatoes, peppers and lettuce basking in the sun.
There are fruit trees too, along with new rows of carrots and beets tucked in among the taller plants, a sump pump for gray water and giant piles of compost. A rickety bistro table and chairs perch precariously on a short ledge of mostly flat ground, and chirping birds flit endlessly in and out of oak and black walnut trees that line the perimeter.
“When we call our family on speakerphone, they say it sounds like Snow White’s birds,” Tomassini said, laughing, “because that’s all they can hear.” Clearly, this is a working farm, but you’d better be sturdy on your feet.
They use a trellis system and Dutch Qlipr clamps for their heirloom tomatoes
They spend their mornings in their field before Greer takes a seven-mile bicycle ride to work in East Hollywood and Tomassini drives to work in Bell. The days are long but Tomassini shrugs it off. “It’s like this for anybody who freelances or starts a small business,” he said. “You’re always working,”
Greer maintains that it’s a kind of a balm. “I’m an outdoors kid doing an indoors job most of the day,” she said. “That’s why gardening is so great.”
In the first year, they’ve cultivated about half their hill, but crammed as much as possible into that space. Towering tomato plants shade more tender sprouts of carrots and beets as well as flowers both edible and for restaurant bouquets. The lower levels are dotted with young fruit trees, like quince, crab apple and heirloom King David apples, as well as perennials like capers and peppercorns.
“The idea is to create a food forest,” Tomassini said, and the effect is impressive. Long rows of lettuce thrive despite the heat (their secret is drip irrigation, shade cloth and lots of compost for mulch). They use a trellis system and Dutch Qlipr clamps for their heirloom tomatoes — Costoluto Genovese, a delicious, ridged Italian variety and an old American favorite, Brandywine — and in late summer, the fruit is hanging heavy on the vines. Tomassini says they are harvesting 70 to 80 pounds of tomatoes a week for a variety of customers, such as Urban Homestead community-supported agriculture farm boxes, Eagle Rock Brewery Public House, as well as several private caterers, including Hank and Bean in Altadena.
The Avenue 33 Farm harvests about 70 to 80 pounds of tomatoes a week, like these ridged, Italian heirloom Costoluto Genovese tomatoes (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times).
They don’t do it alone. Paul Everett, one of Tomassini’s former colleagues at Sqirl, helps on the farm part time, making deliveries when they’re at work, and Calli Goldstein, is an intern/volunteer. They also got a three-year grant from Kiss the Ground, a nonprofit farmland program, to study how the regular addition of amendments like compost and mulch benefit the soil. The grant pays for regular soil tests, Tomassini said, which would be difficult for them to afford on their own.
And most important for Greer and Tomassini, Avenue 33 Farm hosts volunteer days, once a month (The next is Oct. 26). More than 20 adults and children visited last month for a tour and one of Tomassini’s simple meals in exchange for a few hours of weeding, trellising or other jobs.