Playa Vista Farmers’ Market operator explains the science and economics behind a perfect tomato
Story By Shanee Edwards | Photo by Maria Martin
Once an investment banker in the dot com world, Mark Anderson — known to locals as Farmer Mark — operates the Playa Vista Farmers’ Market in Runway at Playa Vista, where you can find him from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Saturday. He has lots of fruitful information to share.
How did you go from being an investment banker to being a farmer?
I decided to get my MBA at UCLA, which brought me out here. This was back in 2000, and I thought the start-up world was interesting. But halfway through the program, the dot com bubble burst and that all dried up. I changed my direction, wanting to look away from technology and find a business that you can’t just invent a better mousetrap and be out of business the next day. Just out of happenstance, I was put in touch with a man who had a seed breeding company, developing hybrid seeds for tomatoes and peppers.
What is seed breeding?
Take two tomato plants — say one that has perfectly red, round fruit that you want, and the other has fruit that aren’t red or round but last a long time. You make the plants have sex together and you hope that the offspring has both qualities.
Is that similar to genetic modification?
No. It has nothing to do with genetic modification because you’re staying within the same species, not bringing in another organism, like a characteristic from a fish. They have inserted genes from a fish into a tomato.
Why would farmers want to cross a fish with a tomato?
They’ll take genes from an arctic fish that can tolerate cold temperatures and insert it into a tomato so that it will better withstand cold temperatures, because that’s how you lose your crops.
Should we refrigerate tomatoes?
No, don’t refrigerate them unless they’ve been cut into.
What made you get interested in farmers markets?
I joined the seed breeding company and became a farm manager overnight. I had all these tomatoes and decided to go sell them at the farmers market in Hermosa Beach, and that was the turning point in my life.
Once I got to the farmers market, people started asking questions about how we grew that tomato — where did that tomato come from, what kind of seed do you have? I just fell down a rabbit hole, thinking, “My gosh, people are so interested in food — why is that?” I started reading books, like Michael Pollin’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” about really knowing where your food comes from. Once you start asking those questions, it’s a slippery slope that is tough to come back from. I developed an appreciation for the power of food — that food is medicine and its importance in your lifestyle.
How do farmers benefit from selling at farmers markets instead of retail stores?
When you’re selling into the retail channel, they have classifications and standards that each piece of produce needs to fit to be purchased and be sold. The reality is that a lot of the crops that you’re growing might have a little blemish, might be a little too big or too small. So the farmers markets became a vehicle for the farmer to sell this produce that’s perfectly great nutrient-wise, but just might not be as pretty as the one on the grocery store shelf.
Is that good for farmers financially?
Yes, they get a retail price verses going through a middle man and getting maybe half the price. It’s also an instant sale, so they don’ have to wait 30 or
60 days to get paid.
What’s the biggest benefit to shopping at a farmers market?
The freshness. Everything at the market is picked within a day or two, as opposed to the grocery store channels where produce has to go through a supply chain and can typically take two weeks to get to the retail store. So much happens in terms of flavor and nutrients in the last couple days of ripeness.
What is the one thing people must buy at the Playa Vista Famers’ Market?
I’ll stick with tomatoes. You really can taste the difference between a farm-fresh tomato and a commercially grown tomato.