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Working the Land, Feeding L.A.
Getting those apples to the stand takes more than a good truck. 48 hours in the life of a market farmer
Photograph by Michael Czerwonka
Since 2003, Barbara and Bill Spencer have rolled into town every Wednesday for the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market to sell the organic produce they grow on their 70 acres near Paso Robles. “We’re better at growing than selling,” says 67-year-old Barbara, a former Hollywood studio cellist who purchased the farm 21 years ago before she and Bill married. But when former chefs David Sundeen Jr. and Susan Dumeyer joined the Windrose Farm team in January to help bolster restaurant distribution, those laid-back market preparations turned into a carefully calibrated routine that begins the day before, down to that last alarm clock minute.
6:59 a.m. “Good morning!” Barbara says, dressed in her signature overalls, handing out work order sheets to Bill, David, Susan, and eight staff pickers. 7:22 a.m. Barbara is standing in flowering thyme along the dirt road leading to the farm. “We planted these to keep bees around, but they’re doing so well, now we sell them,” she says. 8:45 a.m. Bill parks his bike alongside the farm’s barn. “The bike saves time and my old feet,” he jokes, picking through a pile of almond wood to refuel his outdoor smoker, where hundreds of jalapeños are busy becoming chipotles. Bill’s walkie-talkie spurts out a crew member’s question; Bill radios Barbara. “Tell them it doesn’t matter how many Red Flame grapes,” she says. “Just taste them and only pick the really good ones.” 9:37 a.m. In the produce packing shed, David is weighing dozens of chef orders on a scale. “The goal is to finish by three so we can get some sleep,” he says. 11:45 a.m. Today it’s lamb ribs for lunch, left over from a weekend fiesta the Spencers held for a worker. The ribs are from a small flock of sheep that snack on the farm’s 40 varieties of apples. 1:10 p.m. The pickers have moved on to the apple orchard. “What are you using them for?” David asks John Schlothauer, the sous-chef at A.O.C., who is calling with a last-minute order. “Nah, you want something sweeter. I’ll bring a couple apples tomorrow for you to taste.” 2:48 p.m. David and three farmhands begin loading tomorrow’s produce on a small refrigerated cargo truck as Susan methodically marks each crate off the work order list. 5:25 p.m. “This is my favorite time, when it’s quiet and I can get back to the soil,” says Barbara, tilling the earth in one of the empty greenhouse beds that was picked clean that morning. She will replant it with spinach seeds before supper. 7:30 p.m. Barbara takes a roasted chicken out of the oven. Bill pops open a few beers, and the two linger on the back porch. 8:48 p.m. The dishes done, Barbara heads to bed; Bill, an avid baker, pulls out a chubby mound of dough to bake a few sourdough loaves.
12:45 a.m. Barbara fires up the coffee grinder. 1:05 a.m. David arrives to load the tomatoes and herbs. Barbara dons a headlamp to select a few last sprigs from the greenhouse. 1:31 a.m. The truck hums to life, and Barbara slowly rolls out of the driveway for the 200-mile drive. David gets down to business and naps in the passenger seat. 3:31 a.m. They stop for gas. David takes the wheel and heads toward Pacific Coast Highway for the final leg. 6:31 a.m. “We’re ten minutes early!” Barbara says as David pulls into the farm’s designated parking spot at the Santa Monica market. He gets out the tent and display tables and begins stacking crates on the sidewalk. 7:05 a.m. Two sales assistants show up to help Barbara artfully arrange the produce. 7:18 a.m. The chefs are already circling. A half hour before the market bell rings, the pros can place their orders. Eva chef Mark Gold arrives first. “Hey, man, now I need potatoes,” he says. By the time the market officially opens at 8:30, only a handful of Padrón peppers are left. The grapes are going quickly. 9:45 a.m. Barbara explains the textures and flavors of the organic apple varieties to retail customers—again. 11:15 a.m. A sales assistant drops off some burritos for a quick lunch. 1:30 p.m. The closing bell signals it’s time to pack up, albeit 900 pounds of apples, 350 pounds of baby potatoes, and 200 pounds of peppers lighter. 7:30 p.m. Just after sunset David brings the truck to a stop back on the farm. Unloading the unsold produce can wait until after tomorrow’s 7 a.m. staff meeting. At the end of an 18-hour workday, dinner can wait, too. “At that point it’s all about whiskey,” says David, grinning. “And bed.”