Even though growing up in Los Angeles meant better access to high quality produce than most parts of the country, the sense memory of certain fresh tomatoes and corn on a summer afternoon stands out. I must have been around nine-years-old when my best friend's father, an Italian-American Bronx native who would go out of his way for outstanding food, took us to a little stand in the San Fernando Valley.
Everything about this excursion was different. Being Hollywood-area bound, we hardly went to the Valley for much of anything, let alone vegetables. And while our destination wasn't typical for the area, the charmingly crude set-up didn't exactly fit my image of a pastoral farm either. Additional cognitive dissonance stepped in, too. Up until then, I primarily associated Hayvenhurst with the Jackson family home location, and not because I was actually ever a guest there. Sometimes odd facts stick in the mind of us native Angelenos, I guess.
Just before we got back into the car to head over the hill, I was handed a sliced tomato under a canopy surrounded by crates of produce and cooped up chickens in the shadow of the 101. It tasted brighter and more robust than anything of its kind I'd ever had. We twisted through Laurel Canyon back to my friend's house, where her folks boiled ears of corn we'd picked up, and we all feasted on the firm kernels that burst with sweetness of the season. Save for Big Sticks, I'd experienced a new height of summer food nirvana.
The traffic on the freeway has gotten worse, but that outing we made almost thirty years ago is still possible today.
The Tapia Bros. Farm at the intersection of Hayvenhurst and Burbank remains an anachronism, both a handy place to pick up some local produce and a chance to witness a hint of the San Fernando Valley's former agricultural life. Farm stands aren't fussed over in most parts of the country -- for decades they were a common part of the landscape here, too. Several other urban farms and roadside stands survived encroaching development in the western San Fernando Valley through the late 1980s. And yet in a contemporary twist, the new Altadena Urban Farmers' Market provides a much-needed venue for city growers to sell their backyard yields.
Even though Tapia Bros. stand didn't settle into its current site across from the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area until 1984 -- when the family took over what had been the last of four Maria's Corn Stand locations ("leaving behind a small cadre of sad, devoted customers," the Los Angeles Times wrote in December, 1983) and the land that Marguerite Nunn's grandfather started farming in the early 1920s -- dates almost don't matter. The makeshift structures, well-worn hand painted signs, open space, animals and beat-up farm equipment might be a form of set decoration, but it still serves as a reminder of what preceded the expansive miles of wide commercial concrete boulevards and low-density residential tracts that characterize the Valley.
The Tapia Bros. Farm dabbles in what third-generation farmer Tom Tapia calls "agro-tainment" while maintaining a dogged dedication to keeping up a family business. You can pick up strawberries, tomatoes and other freshly picked crops during the summer. Come back a few months later and the lot will be full of pumpkins, Christmas trees, corn mazes or hay rides, used to bolster seasonal and holiday spirits.
Luckily for the Tapias, one thing that has changed over the years is an increased awareness and demand for locally-produced food. Tapia Bros. Farm does not, however, exclusively grow organically. "Corn unfortunately has worms," Tapia explains about the challenges of producing their signature crop. (It should be noted that there's no relation to the Tapia Brothers Company, a large food service distributor. "People see their big trucks out on the highway and ask, 'They're yours?' 'We wish,'" Tom Tapia jokes.)
Although Tom works with his brother, Felix, Jr., Tapia Bros. is in reality an extended family operation that began with their grandfather a bit further north nearly 80 years ago. Crops are grown on approximately 100 acres in the Sepulveda Dam Flood Control Basin leased from the Army Corps of Engineers -- it was closer to 200 acres when the Tapias bought the lease from Nunn in 1983 -- with the main plot located across the street from the retail stand. Goats and rabbits hang out by the smaller demonstration garden, which can be wandered through without having to cross the busy street.
The Encino stand offers produce from other farms, as well as harvests brought in from the family's land in the Lancaster area. During the downtime when the stand closes in winter, Tapia Bros. sees a flurry of activity in late March when Tomatomania's massive seed sale and festival descends on Hayvenhurst Avenue.
As with any farming business, there's no resting easy, especially when the Tapias have to deal with "growing competition from big box stores." So around this time of year when they're better equipped to sell what they grow, Tapia Bros. vendor booths start showing up the Thousand Oaks, Agoura, Valencia, Canoga Park, Antelope Valley, Sherman Oaks and Beverly Hills farmers' markets. "We try not to go too far," Tapia says. It's a good marketing tool. "A lot of people don't realize we're here. It's been working out really well."
Tapia Bros. Farm Stand
5251 Hayvenhurst Avenue, Encino
Photos by Jessica Ritz