Albert Baltazar has a face more like a 1930s Big Band leader than a man who farms 30 acres in Fillmore, specializing in herbs, selling them in local Farmers’ Markets and to voracious wholesale buyers from as far away as Colorado. These two very different kinds of customers share a profound admiration for the quality of his produce.
Ask him about his success and he says: “You plant something in the ground. You pick it. You sell it. That’s all there is to it.” If you press him, he adds “I know how to grow. I don’t know how to sell.” See his produce and you understand the truth of the first part of that statement. Watch him in the markets and note the wholesalers’ trucks that regularly haul away a couple of hundred pounds of bay leaves, chives or water cress and you realize that he sells just fine. In his case, it’s a transparent integrity, a passion for his product, that seals the deal.
He knows he could expand, market and package on his own account, but his heart is in the growing. The big stand of pomegranates that borders his property tells a story.
“I sell them retail for a dollar each,” he says. “I got a buyer – he told me I’m selling too cheap. I said ‘They’re my pomegranates. I can give them away if I want.’” He laughs but this story speaks to an attitude that values more than The Deal.
In 1985, Baltazar was managing a big farm, overseeing about three hundred employees. When that farm broke up, he and a couple of relatives bought 30 acres of the property thinking they’d farm it for a while then sell it for development. Fillmore was a growth area. At the time, the land was mostly down to citrus and, come harvest, Albert brought in the pickers. One fell off a ladder and Baltazar suddenly found himself in the legal business. The next season, he contracted to Sunkist. They brought their own ladders. And they’d assume any liabilities. A couple of months after the picking, he received a bill. Sunkist claimed that year’s low prices didn’t cover their costs. Albert hadn’t read the fine print. He owed them.
Furious, he ripped out the citrus trees, all but a narrow strip so that his mother could pick fresh oranges when she visited.
In 1995, he began to grow herbs and despite his lack of sales effort immediately found outlets in local markets and in the bigger farms that bought his produce, packaged it and sold it on. Now, he works four Farmers’ Markets regularly: Ventura, Wednesdays and Saturdays; and Santa Clarita and Thousand Oaks.
His wholesale turnover greatly exceeds his local market turnover but he relishes the personal contact of the markets.
“Ninety nine point nine percent of the people I deal with are wonderful,” he says, “and when someone says something good about my stuff… that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
Perhaps some of the passion he has for his herbs stems from the fact that he believes they saved his life. “I retired in 2007,” he says. “I ate everything, drank a lot of beer and I weighed over 300lbs. I had diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and the doctors said there was nothing they could do. So I was lying there, tubes sticking out of me and I thought, Okay, so it’s up to me.”
He cut out the beer and began to exercise – he still goes to the gym several times a week. But the biggest change was a diet based almost entirely on his own herbs. He reduced his weight to around a hundred and sixty. The diabetes abated, blood pressure came down and cholesterol returned to normal.
Theoretically, he’s still retired but you wouldn’t believe that from the length of his working week and his commitment to his business. Being the Herb Guy, he grows all the herbs you’d expect: cilantro and watercress – very big in the summer months: marjoram, thyme, rosemary, tarragon – which sell well around Thanksgiving. Two quite different varieties of mint, espoarte, chives, aloes, and lavender…
One of his most interesting crops is rue (ruda in Spanish). This powerfully scented fast-growing weed-like plant, a couple of feet tall with small yellow blossoms, has some interesting properties. It’s valued for various health-promoting and curative properties, but Albert doesn’t promote that particular angle.
“When the guy fell off the ladder, I learned enough about liability,” he laughs. “I don’t want someone suing me because my rue doesn’t cure them!” Nonetheless, a Colorado health company picks up a couple of hundred pounds at a time. Not a bad return on a weed…
One reason Baltazar grows rue is that it deters bugs. He grows it in two big patches on the most intensely cultivated few acres of his herb farm and the rue keeps everything bug free. “If you put a little bunch close to your fruit bowl,” he says, “no more fruit flies.” And rue makes a wonderful, natural fridge deodorant.
Nor is that the end of this miracle plant’s properties. It scares away Evil Spirits, too.
“Maybe not in California,” Albert laughs, “but that’s what they believe in some Latin countries.”
The Herb Guy is one of Poseidon Cooks! favorite vendors. This unique cooking show, based on a boat in Ventura Harbor, goes to great lengths to buy local, organic and sustainable.
“Yes, we want to support local businesses and believe in sustainability,” says the show’s star cook, Linda Andreotti, “but it’s really all about the quality and the taste. Fresh and local simply tastes much better than Big Store produce – and if you’re going to make the effort to cook, and to share those efforts with friends and family, at least start with the best ingredients!”
“And, anyway,” adds her husband John, the show’s Wine Guy, “we love to shop in the local markets. The personal contact, the characters! It’s fun! And the Herb Guy sure is one of our most interesting and charismatic characters.”
The Herb Guy has the last word:
“If a man can make a good living out of the ground – that’s a good thing, right?”