The big rigs zooming down the 91 freeway are hardly visible over the lush early-spring crop at Organic Harvest Gardens. Leafy purple kale, fluorescent rainbow chard, tall stalks of fava beans and pockets of herbs and colorful flowers spring from dozens of grow beds spread across the half-acre urban farm.
This North Long Beach lot is an unlikely oasis, a burst of green on private land wedged between a freeway, an apartment complex and the river bed, where chickens cluck as they lay eggs bound for plates at local restaurants and white butterflies flutter by.
“I started last year leasing only four plots,” Restauration executive chef Phillip Pretty says proudly motioning in the direction of rows of freshly sprouted squash marked with a stake bearing his restaurant’s logo. “Right now, I’m getting about 50 to 60 percent of my produce from here.”
Local chefs like Pretty have long taken advantage of Southern California’s rich bounty, either by visiting area farmers markets themselves or placing orders through thoughtful distributors like Ingardia Brothers, who scour the famous Santa Monica market for the freshest bulk buys.
But with sonly small parcels of undeveloped land and a dearth of skilled urban farmers, finding enough hyperlocal produce to supply a dinner rush is much more difficult. For a busy restaurant like Pretty’s to have more than half of its produce coming directly out of the ground here is no small feat.
Other farm-to-table advocates – such as chef Art Gonzalez with Panxa and Roe, chef Brad Neumann of Taste WBK, chef Eric Samaniego at Michael’s and more – are striving for the same in a city increasing in community farming and co-ops while still lacking large-scale production farms.
“It’s definitely not an easy way to go,” Pretty says of working within the limited space at Organic Harvest to grow most of his produce. “The easy way would be easy to call up Sysco and do a bulk buy and wait for the silver truck to pull up outside. People come in to Restauration expecting every single thing to be grown here but it’s simply not possible right now.”
Currently there are only two Long Beach farms that sell produce directly to restaurants: Organic Harvest Gardens and Farm Lot 59, which together represent just about one of the city’s 33,000 acres. Though the two farms have different financial models and each one offers their restaurant clients a different means to the end, the result is the same: a collaborative relationship between farmer and chef that results in more organic Long Beach-grown produce than ever on your plate.
“We have a strong working partnership with our chefs. It’s personalized,” says Rod Dodd, who along with fellow certified master gardener Adam Romick manages all garden and grow operations at Organic Harvest. “The food scene is growing and I’d prefer for it to be community driven. It’s like family here. We need to help each other.”
Dodd has a rich history of coercing edible things out of Long Beach’s temperamental soil. A trained professional chef with a background in biology and animal care, he’s designed and built community gardens through Long Beach Organic and is the chair and director of the District 9 Urban Agriculture Council.
At Organic Harvest, which was converted from a community farm last year, Dodd and Romick manage plots that are leased by local restaurants (like Thai District, Under the Sun and James Republic) and work directly with the chefs to determine the best use of the space for their needs.
Pretty, for example, currently gets all his herbs, flowers, lettuce and carrots from his plots. In the summer, there will be watermelon, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and more. Getting this much produce out of the available land wasn’t easy, though.
“There are limitations to this space, but we are constantly problem solving,“ Pretty says, showing off a new shade cloth over his lettuce plot as an example. “We talk about it, try it and see if it works. I have to be open to change, but every season we come closer to running exactly what we want.”
Gonzalez (Panxa Cocina and Roe Restaurant) has a similar relationship with his farmer, Sasha Kanno, at Farm Lot 59. Months before the next planting season, the two will sit down and discuss his needs for the next year, settling on which cucumbers, peppers, herbs and oddities he might be able to use in his kitchen.
Last year, Gonzalez brought in a hard-to-find Peruvian black mint that he loves to use in ceviche; six plants now grow at Farm Lot 59 specifically for him.
“She wants to do those obscure things and get us what we want,” Gonzalez says. “I love it.”
Right now, Gonzalez is also buying fennel, carrots, kale, lavender, serrano peppers and honey from Kanno, who splits up her crop and sells to other local restaurants like Michael’s on Naples and Chianina.
In the summer, Kanno’s new tomato tunnel will be able to provide Gonzalez with enough heirloom tomatoes for his specialty: pico de gallo, which he sells about 100 gallons of per week. He estimates that about one-third of his produce comes from within Long Beach, with the remainder supplemented with personalized orders from the farmers-market-hunting Ingardia Brothers.
“I think [Long Beach’s urban farms] are really great for specialty items,” he says. “If you’re going to do a focused tomato salad or you’re working on a beautiful fish dish where part of it is an artichoke and you only need 20 heads a week. With a city like Long Beach, that’s where urban agriculture can be most helpful.”
Like Pretty, Gonzalez acknowledges that even though the amount of locavore produce available to restaurants is increasing, it’s still simply not feasible for even the most dedicated of farm-to-table chefs to survive on only what’s grown within city limits. But both enjoy the challenge of staying seasonal while working around what Mother Nature provides.
“That’s what I like — the challenge,” Gonzalez says. “Sometimes [Kanno] sends me stuff I’m not even expecting. It allows me to stay creative. It keeps me on my toes.”
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.