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Altadena goes back to basics, opens doors for foodcrafters

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On the old Zane Grey estate in Altadena, in an old outbuilding they’ve turned into a kitchen, canning jars line the shelves, homemade cheeses ferment in a glass fridge. There’s a 6-week-old goat named Poppyseed who roams freely. This is the Institute of Domestic Technology.

The view from the door of the Mariposa Creamery looks like an urban homesteader’s paradise. Canning jars line the shelves, homemade cheeses ferment in a glass fridge, and a 6 week-old goat named Poppyseed, stumbles around the room, waiting to be fed.

Opened less than a year ago, this is the Institute of Domestic Technology, and it’s an up and coming epicenter for foodcrafting.

Founded by Joseph Shuldiner and located on the Zane Grey estate in Altadena, the Institute draws people from all over California for workshops on cheese and bread making, coffee roasting, pickling and canning. Shuldiner says he founded the Institute to help people rediscover “the lost arts of Home Ec.”

This morning, Certified Master Food Preserver Kevin West is working with about thirty pounds of ripe, red cherries. He's teaching a class how to pickle them. He is also turning them into fruit leather in a food processor.

Why Altadena?

According to Shuldiner, "Altadena is this unpretentious epicenter of what’s happening in food. All this stuff is not happening in Santa Monica, where you would think it would, or the West Side. It’s happening in Altadena, which still, people say, 'now where is Altadena?' You know - people don’t know, and I love that part.”

Donna Barnes-Roberts has lived in Altadena for 25 years. "We’re an unincorporated township; we are not a city, so we don’t have an extra layer of regulation on top of us, so we go by county rules," she says.

Because it is unincorporated, more restrictive zoning laws don’t apply, so it is legal to keep chickens, pigs, goats and even llamas in your backyard. Altadena started as a wine-growing region, and throughout its history, farmers raved about its granitic soil.

“It’s sort of like we get the early dirt, and that early dirt is really great for growing stuff, " says Barnes-Roberts. "Plus, we get about twice the rainfall as the LA basin, because we’re up against the mountains. And at certain times of the year, the clouds will just sort a stick up here and they hang about and they dribble on us,” she laughs.

In the spring of 2010, Joseph Shuldiner and his friends started a farmers market in Altadena, but it was underground. No one was certified, it was held in someone’s front yard, and you needed to sign a release form to get in. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when they decided to shut it down.

He still had dozens of friends who kept animals in their backyards, baked their own bread, and grew fruits and vegetables, but couldn’t legally sell their wares because they weren’t certified. In August of 2011, Shuldiner started the Institute, and its reputation spread.

“Loma Alta Park approached me and said ‘Oh, you know, the town really wants a farmers market - we’ve never had one.’ So I decided to make everything sort of permitted. I’m incubating these businesses. For people who’ve never gotten a health department permit, for people who’ve never gotten their Certified Producers Certificate, we’re hand-holding them and showing them how to do it."

This new Altadena Farmers Market is so legit, it has even appointed an “Assistant Secretary of Urban Farming.” That’s Elizabeth Bowman, a graduate student at Antioch University. Her job is to help everyday people realize their urban farming potential, get their certification, and help find creative solutions to whatever barriers are keeping them from getting to market.

One vendor, identified as Rishi, heard about the farmers market from Shuldiner and started selling fresh vegetables and Mexican honeysuckle that he grows in his backyard. He says he started growing organic food for himself because it was so much cheaper than buying it in stores.

"I just started growing it myself and kind of got crazy with it," he said. "I took out all the lawn and landscaping in my whole yard. We're just growing on 5,000 square feet. We got chickens, we got rabbits, we got a beehive. Hopefully we'll get some goats."

Shuldiner hopes the Altadena Farmers Market goes beyond organic broccoli and kale and inspires others to realize their farming potential.

“We’re going to map the city and as these urban farmers join our market, we’re going to carve it out: 'this person has one-eighth of an acre in their backyard that they’re growing and they’re selling in the farmers market.'' He plots it on a table and adds, "We may become a couple acre communal farm that happens to be a few square feet here, a quarter-acre there, but when you add up fifty of those, we’ve just started a farm in the middle of the city. It just happens to be in fifty different locations."

The Altadena Farmers Market runs Wednesday afternoons in Loma Alta Park.

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