When Los Angeles Clippers owner and real estate mogul Donald Sterling bought the six-acre organic farm in late 2010, and then an adjacent (known as the DeWind property) in May of this year, many residents feared the immediate demise of their favorite organic farm.
Alan Cunningham, the farmer who is known affectionately as Vital Zuman, is here to tell you the farm is not only still open, but thriving.
"The farm is open almost every day of the year," Cunningham said. "That's the biggest part of our mission—to keep a real agricultural property open to the public. The public needs to have access to food-growing properties, and that's our No. 1 mission."
Operated by a small army of volunteers, Vital Zuman, begun in 1954, is one of the oldest organic farms in the United States.
The farm on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to work harvesting (tomatoes and figs, perhaps), seeding greens patches with salad greens, kale and cooking greens and doing general agricultural tasks.
Cunningham also participates in the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program, in which volunteers from all over the world stay on the site and work the farm. Cunningham provides them with meals and an educational farm experience.
“This year, we've had six Wwoofers here already," Cunningham said. "It's more a winter thing. Over the years, I've had people from every continent here."
Close to half the cultivation is done by volunteers, he says; the other half Cunningham does himself. It's a rare occasion when he has to hire help for big pruning jobs.
It is clearly a special place that attracts people passionate about the land and local produce.
Victoria Scott, who handles the front of market as a volunteer, said, "The best part of my day is picking. There is a magic in interacting with the Earth. Dirt, water, sun … it's a genius idea."
The farm grows seasonal vegetables—basil, tomatoes, summer squash, melons, guavas, figs, lettuces and other greens, root vegetables, beets, parsnips, garlic … the list goes on! The fields are watered from a well on the property that supplies chlorine-free mineral water.
Hand-lettered signs beckon drivers along Pacific Coast Highway, and a simple chain across the driveway tells you when the farm stand is closed.
Those who want a taste of the farm can stop at the shop (open six days a week), where seasonal produce is displayed charmingly in wooden crates. The farm's raw, wild honey from its own beehives and other items are also sold there.
Vital Zuman also offers one-time or weekly farm boxes, either small ($30) or large ($50). The small has a bag of salad greens, potatoes, garlic, onions, avocado and five pieces of fruit. The large has a bag of salad greens, mixed greens, potatoes, garlic, onions, baking squash, avocados and eight pieces of seasonal fruit. Pick-up is at the farm.
Cunningham's father, the late George Cunningham, was the first Vital Zuman.
"He spent more than 40 years creating the organic topsoil here," said Cunningham with pride.
The property, referred to as Fig Tree Ranch/Vital Zuman Organic Farm, is especially known for its figs and its fresh greens—both salad greens and cooking greens. Cunningham's favorite cooked greens are chard (he grows both rainbow chard and the variety called white Fordhook).
"With chard, you want to stir-fry it for a minute or so," Cunningham said. "You put in a pan with a little oil, add one tablespoon of soy sauce, and you steam and stir-fry it for just a minute. It doesn't take very long at all; you want to cook it halfway done, so it is still bright green."
Cunningham's favorite fresh salad mix includes lettuce, endive, arugula and wild spinach, which is also known as lamb's quarters.
"Wild spinach occurs naturally, and is part of the permaculture out here," Cunningham said. "It comes up every year, by itself. It's in the chard family, is higher in protein and vegetable oil than any green and very meaty tasting."
With his fresh salad, he favors his own dressing that he makes with a citrus fruit called Rangpur lime. Wikipedia tells us the Rangpur is a hybrid between the mandarin orange and the lemon—a citrus fruit with a very acidic taste and an orange peel and flesh. The Rangpur is known as a Canton lemon in South China, a hime lemon in Japan, a cravo lemon in Brazil and mandarin-lime in the U.S.
This dressing would be perfect on any mixture of your favorite fresh greens.
Rangpur Lime Salad Dressing
1 1/2 cups olive oil
1 large Rangpur lime
4 ounces Dulse seaweed (or about ½ teaspoon salt)
Blend all ingredients, including the entire Rangpur lime (seeds, skin and flesh) in a blender until well combined. Use to dress your salad.
Vital Zuman (29127 Pacific Coast Highway, 310-457-4356) is open Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.