They turned 4 Los Angeles yards into low water mini farms — and the lettuce is phenomenal

Low Water Mini Farms | BY REUBEN BRODY |

It’s a warming Sunday morning at the Atwater Village Farmers Market, and close to the entrance on Garden Avenue a chipper voice is beckoning shoppers.

“Red vein sorrel!”

The voice belongs to Mike Wood, the owner-farmer of Huarache Farms. He stands behind a table, wearing glasses, sandals, running shorts and a straw hat, which has a hole in its crown from rubbing against low-slung orange branches.

Unlike other stands, stuffed with bunches of dirt-covered produce, Mike’s spot is lined with leafy greens and sprouts that have been trimmed and washed; they rest in large plastic bins with silver tongs for scooping. Small black placards with white handwriting inform shoppers of names, prices, nutritional value and use.

Wood’s low water mini farms are as nontraditional as his market setup. It’s a collection of four backyards: three in Sierra Madre and one in Glendale that run on a combination of hydroponic systems, wicking beds and vertical bins that use recycled water.

A woman tosses harvested sunflower sprouts into a large plastic bin.
Mandy Wood, co-owner of Huarache Farms, tosses harvested sunflower sprouts into a container after washing them.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“He’s a total food nerd,” says his wife and business partner, Mandy Wood, commenting on how Mike will check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of most nutritious fruits and vegetables to decide what to grow. “I just eat what I feel like eating,” she says, although her diet is still fueled by their farm collective.

It’s now Friday, two days before the market, and Mandy is rinsing and spinning sorrel in a giant salad spinner that’s popular on farms in France. She is at home, both literally and figuratively: Huarache’s headquarters is Mandy’s childhood home.

Also home to two boys ages 10 and 15, the place has a lived-in, “Swiss Family Robinson” feel. A jungle of sugar cane surrounds the trampoline and the treehouse. A tall banana tree provides some shade for the swing set, which looks like a 1980s public park swing set because it is one; Mandy’s father was once a handyman for Los Angeles’ Department of Recreation and Parks, and he ordered it from the city’s vendor.

Mike and Mandy met in 2005 at Citrus Community College in Glendora. Attracted to Mandy’s curly hair, he sat beside her and, in an attempt at coquetry, opened an H.P. Lovecraft book.

He was studying forestry, and his professor suggested that the best way to preserve the biodiversity of forests would be to stop large-scale industrial farming. Smaller, more diversified farms would improve the environment and reduce wildfires.

A hand holding out freshly harvested sunflower sprouts.
Mike Wood, co-owner of Huarache Farms, harvests sunflower sprouts growing at the Sierra Madre location.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Mike went on to Cal Poly Pomona to study agriculture and became interested in aquaponics. He built an aquaponic system in the backyard and transformed Mandy’s pool into a freshwater pond for tilapia. The pond reverted to a pool after Mandy — needing a swim on a 100-degree day — smacked a fish by accident. “That was it,” she says.

This was 2014, and Mike was raising chickens too. He grew food to feed his 20-odd fish, and the chicken feed included cayenne pepper, which reddened the yolks. Customers loved this. Mike expanded to 100 chickens. A cacophony of clucks led to neighbor complaints, followed by a citation from the city.

Mike had been growing his animal feed hydroponically and figured it would be more ecologically efficient to grow plants for people instead of growing feed for animals to become our food. “It’s easier to take care of plants than it is to take care of animals,” he says with a chuckle. “They’re much more forgiving.”

From 2017 to 2020, Huarache Farms grew into the cooperative it is today. Mike met Edwin Tomyoy, a chef who used to sell with him at the farmers market. Tomyoy helped Mike transition to veggies; they amicably parted ways during the pandemic. In 2018, while at his kids’ school, Mike met Dan Farnam and Bryan Blackburn, whom he refers to as the vegan dads. They bonded over vegetables, farming and running. The dads asked if Mike would help them build a hydroponic system, then asked if he’d sell their excess produce.

In 2019, Mike added two more backyards for low water mini farms: Sunland Farm in Glendale and the Wood Farm (no relation to his name) in Sierra Madre. He also met Isaac Qureshi and Erika Hang, who had Sustaina, a business platform. They helped Mike create an accounting system to accurately split the payments between him and the various backyards; some of them would get 60% because they tilled while Mike sold, others 40%. Through Sustaina, Huarache also launched a Community Supported Agriculture box, which delivers around Sierra Madre. Because people were looking for alternative grocery options at the start of the pandemic, it went from delivering five CSA boxes a week in 2019 to more than 70 in 2020.

A man in a straw hat leans over a planter bed to harvest hydroponically grown kale.
Mike Wood, co-owner of Huarache Farms, harvests kale, grown hydroponically at its Sierra Madre location. In foreground is mustard.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

By 2020, his vegetables were a hit at the farmers market, and pandemic-addled customers seeking a break from self-isolation volunteered to help harvest. After the harvests, they’d host a dinner. Mandy was now on board full-time, having quit her clerical job at a hospital to help streamline things and get her “hands dirty.”

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