LocationAlhambra , CA United States
It’s a pleasant looking home in a typical residential neighborhood in Hacienda Heights, a little east of where the 60 and 605 freeways intersect. But you shouldn’t judge an urban farm by the look of its cover. Once you enter the football field sized backyard through the driveway gate, you find yourself in the midst of row upon row of thriving green leafy plants, more than 150 trees, and chicken coops with 300 vocal inhabitants. This is where Nancy Chin and Savath Lieu, the husband and wife team that own and operate Nancy’s Garden, grow the organic fruits, vegetables and eggs they sell every Sunday at the Alhambra Farmers Market.
“Hi Nancy! Hi Sav!” (pronounced like the first syllable of “savvy”) And then, “What do you have this week?” More times than I could count on a Sunday morning, a steady stream of customers greeted the couple in this way while picking up a week’s supply of fruits, veggies, and leafy greens. Lieu estimates that more than 50 percent of his customers are regulars that come every week. But it took time to develop their clientele.
Nancy’s Garden became a vendor at Alhambra Farmers Market about five years ago. Even before selling at Alhambra Farmers Market, Chin recalls attending the market as long as thirty years ago when it was located by the old Pacific Telephone Company building on Garfield, north of Main Street next to the Edwards movie theater complex.
In addition to Alhambra, they sell their products at the Altadena Farmers Market. Lieu found that the customers at each location are reflective of the city’s population. They bring a similar product mix to both locations, but might bring to Altadena fewer Asian products, such as bitter melon, that aren’t as familiar to the non-Asian palate. “At Alhambra, 80% of our customers are Asian. But when we go to the Altadena Farmers Market, it’s the opposite with about 80% Caucasian and 20% Asian,” said Lieu.
Chin only grows produce that she personally enjoys, so everything you see at the Nancy’s Garden booth is something she likes. If she can’t sell it, she is more than happy to eat it herself. Tomatoes are her favorite and are the best-selling summer product with as many as twenty different varieties on sale during peak season. Altogether, she grows at least fifty different tomato varieties, including ten kinds of cherry tomatoes.
“I love growing tomatoes. It’s one of the items where you can really tell the difference in taste when compared to store bought,” said Chin. “When you grow them in season with the heat, the tomatoes will have a beautiful aroma and a sweetness that greenhouse grown tomatoes won’t have.”
Product availability for Nancy’s Garden is weather related, with cabbage and green leaf vegetable being popular in winter. Summer produce can include tomatoes, egg plants, bitter melons, cucumbers, and fruits such as plums, peaches, nectarines and jujubes. In total, their product list contains hundreds of varieties of produce.
During the spring and summer months, when days are longer, one-third of their sales are typically eggs. Chin’s soft spot for chickens, all three hundred of them, began in her childhood when she first saw baby chicks hatch from an incubator in her first-grade class. By second grade, she had sixty chickens occupying the backyard of their family grocery store in South Los Angeles. Leftover produce from the store would help feed her many feathered friends. Her father was her accomplice as he regularly took her to the pet store to buy more chickens. “Dad was a farm boy at heart and would take me to the pet store and let me buy all the chickens I wanted, and my mom hated it,” said Chin.
Chin, remembering her own experience as a child, also tries to teach city kids about the benefits of farming. She and her favorite rooster, seven-year old Rufus, appear annually on Career Day at 95th Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles and Castelar Elementary School in Chinatown to talk about agriculture and show the kids a real live farm animal.
Over the years, her interest in farming grew and led her and Sav, who have been married for 30 years, to purchase their current three-quarter acre Hacienda Heights home in 2011. They immediately began to turn the house into what it looks like now. The couple started planting and hired a crew to put all the trees in the ground. As the mini-farm became productive, she gave away the fruits of her and Sav’s labor to her friends and family.
When it became clear that they still had too much food, Sav suggested selling their products at a farmers market. Chin was initially resistant because “this was my dream garden, I just wanted to hang out, and thought I would retire and grow old here.”
They soon realized that the business of farming required a much more significant commitment than farming as a hobby and they developed a division of labor. Chin does the planting and growing and Sav does the harvesting and handles the upkeep of the farm such as maintaining the coops and tree pruning, with each working at least 60 hours a week. For instance, a typical day, might have her and Sav at work on the farm at 6:00am or earlier and finishing their day picking and bundling their produce until 9:00pm for the next day’s farmers market.
While she works long hours, Chin has been known to plant at night for a respite while using a head lamp. “It’s a quiet and peaceful time to plant and work on the soil, it’s kind of my own time,” she said.
Although Nancy had enjoyed gardening as a hobby since childhood, neither she or her husband had previous farming experience and had had to figure it out through trial and error. She also learned that Mother Nature can be very uncooperative; she dishes out whatever she wants and you have to work with it. It’s even harder for them because their organic certification means they can’t use chemicals. An example was a recent heat wave that caused her tomatoes to prematurely rot and split open. As a result, her chickens received an unexpected treat of six buckets of unsellable, but tasty for chickens, tomatoes.
And urban farming is not cheap. Water is by far the most significant expense, followed by fertilizer and soil. Chin estimates that water makes up about one-third of total costs. Because her farm is not five acres, Chin said it is not technically considered a farm in L.A. County, so there is no discount for water and they also must pay an additional surcharge.
The organic certification also adds to her costs and is passed onto the cost of her products. For example, she must use special organic soil for her plants and grows them in special containers to isolate the soil apart from the normal soil. Lieu noted that it typically itakes three years for mixed soil to become sufficiently treated so it can be used as organic soil, but in their case, it was done within a year due to the soil separation.
Chin decided to obtain an organic certification because she wanted to eat the best quality fruits and vegetables and didn’t want to ingest pesticides. Since her family and friends would also be eating her produce, she wanted to be sure that she used only the best ingredients and that her products were the highest quality. She remembers that her dad set an early example for her. He tended not to focus on material things, but would always spend the money for his family to eat properly.
Chin is pleased that her business is growing as the public increasingly recognizes and appreciates the benefits of organic food products. She believes her customers like her products because homegrown food tastes different and it’s picked fresh. Their customers can purchase produce that was freshly picked from the vine that same morning. In contrast, produce bought in grocery stores may have been in transit for many days prior to reaching the store.
Lieu also has observed that there has always been interest in organic produce, but in the past ten years, consumers are more conscious about locally grown products, especially if it is organic certified.
“If people are interested in having the most nutritious and fresh produce, then they should shop local farmers and look for certified organic produce,” said Lieu. “Not only is it healthy, it also tastes better.”