July 31 2017

The Culinary Farmer: Courtney Guerra, Alma, & Seed Change

Los Angeles-Stand Up
In part two of our three-part series on the resurgence of urban farming in LA, we meet the professional-volleyball-player-turned-urban-farmer, Courtney Guerra, who has developed a new urban farming model melding community integration with culinary creation.
In case you missed the first installment of this series with LA artist Britt Browne, here are some quick facts to bring you up to speed.  In the first half of the 20th century, Los Angeles County was the largest, highest producing agricultural county in the United States—more bountiful than any county in Iowa or Nebraska. Things have changed in the last 60 years, but LA’s agricultural roots haven’t entirely dried up. Individuals and communities across the sprawling metropolis are planting seeds that not only grow food, but regenerate the soil, clean the air, beautify neighborhoods, and inspire the city’s youth.

The Standard recently got in on the action by investing in Seed Change, a remarkable organization that supplies culinary-focused produce to lauded chef Ari Taymor of Alma at The Standard, Hollywood. As we learned by dropping in on Courtney Guerra, the culinary component is just one facet of Seed Change's larger mission. 
Courtney Guerra's Seed Change
The Standard
At the top of a steep canyon in Glassell Park is a dead end marked by a crooked sign nailed to a fence post. “HIDDEN CANYON" it says in black paint, the hand-painted words faded by the sun, which by early June is fiercely hot, baking the surrounding hillsides into sand-colored mounds.

There are houses dotting the canyons, the LA skyline in the distance, and Maricopa Farms' neatly planted rows of sunflowers and fava beans tucked into the plunging landscape below. Hidden Canyon indeed.

This half-acre plot is the domain of Seed Change, a non-profit organization focused on innovation and education around urban agriculture in Los Angeles. “I see this as the future of LA,” co-founder Courtney Guerra says of urban farming. “We have a lot of land here, but most of it is covered in asphalt and buildings, so you have to find the potential in a space that might not be so obvious.”
The Standard
The Standard

Guerra is tall, capable, and unfazed by the 100-degree heat—the type of qualities you’d expect from someone who spent six years playing professional beach volleyball. She began her post-athlete farming career at Meadowood in Napa Valley, working in the garden that supplies the property’s three-Michelin star restaurant while she earned a degree from the nearby Culinary Institute of America. After culinary school, she moved to Los Angeles where she convinced a friend in Venice to let her transform his front and back yards into a culinary garden.

As the garden took shape, she met chef Ari Taymor, who along with Ashleigh Parsons had just opened a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles called Alma. They began an exclusive partnership: whatever Guerra grew, Alma got.

Now, five years later, their partnership has evolved. In 2015, Alma was forced to shutter its downtown digs, but re-emerged in 2016 at The Standard, Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. Guerra left Venice, took over Maricopa Farms, and began to rethink what a sustainable urban farm in Los Angeles might look like.

“Urban farming is this tricky thing,” she says. “With traditional farming, you’re working a lot of land—it’s a volume game. With urban farming you have serious hurdles—namely space, rent, and the cost of water, because you’re on residential water rates, not agricultural rates.”
The Standard
The Standard

She knew that the long-term health of Maricopa Farms required partners, which she found in The Standard, which invested in the program, and Alma Community Outreach, the restaurant’s non-profit arm, which initiates student field trips to the farm and internship and volunteer opportunities for youth interested in urban agriculture. The multi-pronged approach allows Guerra to focus on what she does best: culinary farming.

What does culinary farming mean exactly? “Try this,” she says, handing me a fava blossom. I crunch on the white flower, which is remarkably sweet. A culinary garden, she explains, means you can be hyper-focused on your harvest and utilize the plant at every stage.

Take caraway, for instance. Most cooks associate the plant with seeds you buy in a supermarket or the dark brown freckles in your rye bread. At Maricopa, Guerra grows fresh caraway, harvesting the frilly green leaves and the blossoms for garnishes, and ultimately capturing the seeds, which can be eaten fresh or dried, to create that dark brown seed you find in the spice section.

For Taymor, having access to specialty crops gives him a competitive advantage. The chef still has right of first refusal on all the herbs, cucumbers, gherkins, Asian melons, and Mexican corn that Guerra grows at Maricopa, but Seed Change can sell whatever Alma doesn’t purchase to local markets and restaurants. Soon they will add bees and chickens to the property, and potentially goats, as well.

 

Guerra is optimistic about the prospects of urban agriculture in Los Angeles. For years, local advocacy groups have been lobbying the City Council to make it easier to not only grow food on city property, but also to turn urban agriculture into a viable business. Just days before my visit to Maricopa Farms, the City Council passed the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Program, which uses tax benefits to incentivize vacant lot owners to partner with urban farmers in search of land. The measure not only paves the way for better food access in urban areas, but also has the potential to transform tens of thousands of vacant, and often blighted, lots into a thriving green space.

“The great part is that we’re finally getting it,” Guerra says. “Our policy makers are getting it. The Standard gets it. Now, it’s about educating homeowners and vacant lot owners that this can be a real thing—you can turn your property into an urban ag project, and that’s really exciting.” 


The Standard
Photographer
Shelby Duncan
Writer
Gillian Ferguson