At Poseidon Cooks! we call him ‘Volksie’ for his near obsession with old VWs but his name is David Pommer and his real obsession is growing vegetables and fruit.
“I’ve never met anyone as passionate as David about his produce,” says Linda Andreotti, cook and driving force behind Poseidon Cooks! “He’s only at our local Farmers’ Market for seven or eight months of the year because he’s 100% seasonal; so when he shows up with his latest crop, that’s a red letter day for us.”
Everything Pommer grows is special, whether it’s the 20% he sells at local markets or the 80% that goes to the Las Vegas chefs and the high-end Los Angeles and San Francisco restaurants that go out of their way to find his produce – from beets to artichokes, candy onions to snow peas, arugula to squash.
Then there are his tomatoes, perhaps the pinnacle of his obsession with developing and propagating the best of the best.
“Once you’ve tasted a Volksie tomato – whatever the variety – you’ll never go back to store-bought and you’ll only turn to hothouse as a last resort.”
“It’s not just a question of taste,” David explains. “It’s color, size, texture and a range of qualities I can’t really describe. I won’t even allow anyone else to pack my tomatoes. I have to do it myself.” Then he laughs. “I really am obsessed.” And what’s interesting about this passion for tomatoes is that David Pommer doesn’t much like to eat them. Even his own.
Growing food of this quality demands dedication, knowledge – college-bought and practical – and hard, hard work. Volksie started young. His father was an aerospace engineer and his brother would become a chemical engineer, but David simply liked to grow. His passion took him to Cal Poly, where he began his specialization in avocados and citrus. His ‘project harvests’ were on the school’s behalf but the Statute of Limitations on fruit is short-lived and now it can be revealed that from time to time he sold enough in the local markets to finance a 200+ mile drive and dinner with his girlfriend, now his wife.
“Beyond Cal Poly, the best thing that happened to my career was being hired straight out of school by a farmer who wanted a blank slate. Someone he could teach from scratch. He sent me to Israel where I learned everything there was to know about drip irrigation and the kind of growing conditions I’ve faced from then until now.”
‘Now’ is the management of some 450 acres of avocados and citrus. A quid pro quo has been the ranch owner’s permission – and encouragement – of his growing row crops.
Along the way, Pommer was tapped to run Sony’s 920 acre lemon ranch (the Newman Ranch Co.). Sony ‘inherited’ the ranch as part of their ultimately disastrous Hollywood foray but the culture’s love of citrus and the philosophy ‘Be first or be last’ gave him carte blanche to do absolutely anything he wanted to run and improve the operation. Unlike almost every other farmer in the area – in the world, perhaps – David Pommer could stay ahead of the curve, never short of cash to invest in equipment, education and crop-improvement. This 16 year idyll only came to an end when the management passed from Japan to New York. The bean counters descended on the ranch and turned it into row crops.
Rudely ejected from this perfect nest, Pommer began to consult, not just in Southern California but in China, before he took over the management of his current ranch.
The progression from a comfortable childhood, through Cal-Poly to the Newman Ranch Co’s no-expenses-spared operation may sound like a fast-track to substantial income. “No, absolutely not,” says Pommer. “If you want to be rich, don’t do this. The economics are screwy, starting with land prices. Who, now, could afford to buy or rent the kind of acreage you need? And if you do luck into affordable land, the work itself is arduous. I’m talking here more about specialty and organic than big machine farming. But even in our specialized fields, we’re seeing so much competition from all over the world that we, too, have to standardize and homogenize. That, for example, is why you’ll very rarely see Gem, Surprise or Lamb Haas avocados these days. They have their own distinct tastes but they’re seasonal and the market demands year-round supplies, almost regardless of taste. So, now, more and more comes from Mexico, Chile and Peru. No one seems to care too much that shipping affects the taste of any produce. Generally degrades it. Have you ever heard of any fruit or vegetable whose taste was improved by shipping?”
The days when shoppers welcomed the variety that the changes of season – the anticipation of spring, summer or winter tastes – those days are long gone. Everyone wants everything right now. And so suppliers and stores will scour the world to fulfill that demand.
“None of those growers – Mexico, Spain, Chile, whomever local growers compete with – are held to the standards we are. We’re being regulated to death. We’re riding mules to the market. They’re riding racehorses. They’re state of the art. There’s nothing new happening here. In fact, most of my own research dates back to the Newman Ranch Co. days.”
Pommer is fatalistic about this foreign competition but more aggressive about Farmers’ Markets.
“In my view, if you’re not a grower you shouldn’t be in a Farmers’ Market,” he says. “Walk around the stalls. Take a look. You tell me how this fruit or that vegetable can be available year round. Or this big, or that fat. What’s that got to do with a Farmers’ Market?” But then he shrugs. “There’s not much I can do about that. All I can do is grow the very best produce that I can, and believe that it will find its own market.”
In Pommer’s case, it does. He sells only 20% of his produce at Farmers’ Markets. The rest goes to demanding, discerning restaurant buyers, a demand driven by top tier chefs with exacting standards. That in itself – boutique sales – bears thinking about on two levels: taste and economics.
There’s no doubt that, in general, our tastes are becoming blander; a direct result of long-chain distribution and big store homogeneity. Yet a substantial number of consumers demand fresher, richer, more authentic tastes. That’s one reason that Farmers’ Markets and Buy Local are so successful. Can they remain successful? That depends on whether the blander, cheaper mass demand will simply overwhelm the smaller and more specialized market. If fewer and fewer people have even experienced a fresh ‘home-grown’ tomato, a seasonal avocado or a tangerine right off the tree, then who will be the ‘guardians’ of fresh? A few upscale restaurants and their customers? If fresh and local is priced out of the market – the result of land costs, labor and regulation – then produce of the quality of David Pommer’s will become an exotic rarity.
Poseidon Cooks! is driven by a passion for food and wine, and by the pleasure of sharing them with family and friends.
“Sure, there are times when you have to eat and run,” says Linda Andreotti, “but we want to go way beyond that. We want to bring families and friends back together around the dinner table and the best way to do that is to prepare a wonderful meal! That means top quality ingredients. You need to buy fresh and that’s almost always local; probably organic, too. Volksie’s produce is so good, so fresh, so filled with taste, that he’s our first stop on market day.”
“If he has what we want, there’s really no point in buying from anyone else. And if he doesn’t have exactly what we want, we’ll often modify our menus – and even our recipes. That’s how good he is.”
David Pommer’s been growing for 15 years. He’s been a consultant and a ranch manager for 36.
Despite the obstacles and the arduous nature of his work, his passion remains undimmed. He will never stop working at, developing, improving his crops. In fact, working with long-time friend and plant breeder Grey Martin, he’s about to launch a new product altogether – a unique strain of Dragon fruit.
“It’s hard to predict anything in this business, but I believe this particular Dragon fruit has a potential that’s never been seen before, an entirely new economic opportunity.”