Chef Brandon Peralta Switches From The Table To The Farm To Support His Community

We speak to Whittier, California-based market gardener (and cousin of comedian Melissa Villaseñor), Brandon Peralta, about his Friendly Hills Farm venture.

by Phillip Mlynar

Brandon Peralta forged a career as a chef at West Coast, Michelin-starred restaurants for over a decade. But recently, he decided to trade nights toiling in hectic kitchens for outdoor days. Now he tends to a quarter-acre garden in Whittier, California.

This drastic change of career came about as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My career brought me back to the Los Angeles area to open a restaurant called M.Georgina,” says Peralta, who had spent the previous seven years cheffing in San Francisco. It was there that he experienced the farm to table movement first hand.

“We planned to open in 2018. That got pushed back, we had a $2-million build out, and then COVID-19 hit after eight months. It wiped us out.”

At this juncture, Peralta decided he wanted to “get closer to where my food is coming from.” So he teamed up with his business partner and “avid food grower” John Davis to form Friendly Hills Farm.

“We can get this fresh, nutritionally dense local food onto people’s plates, which I wasn’t going to be able to do with restaurants any more,” explains Peralta.

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Taking a moment out from his daily duties at Friendly Hills Farm, we spoke to Peralta about no-till gardening methods and how bugs play a crucial role in farming. We also got into the high maintenance tendencies of tomatoes.

Journeying from Chef to Farmer

Peralta says that during his years in San Francisco, he was fortunate to be “exposed to really elevated produce, both nutrition wise and aesthetics wise.”

The experience caused Peralta to wonder, “Why do some parts of Los Angeles not have access to food like this? Instead, the food is imported and is sitting in warehouses for weeks.”

Eventually, he says that “being spoiled in San Francisco for seven years gave me a dream of being able to get this food into my family and community’s hands in Whittier.”

A No-Till State of Mind

No till-gardening methods form a key part in running Friendly Hills Farm.

“To be completely transparent, you have to till initially in California because we have a hard clay that heats up to 90-plus degrees in the middle of summer. So it’s like concrete when you’re trying to cultivate it,” he explains.

“But getting the initial till done and then adding carbon and nutrients into your clay and turning it from dirt to soil—once you have your land cultivated and inoculated with nitrogen and natural chemicals that plants need to survive, by not tilling you keep the nutrients where they’re supposed to be.”

He adds that you can think of tilling as equivalent to constantly ripping a Band-Aid off a wound just as it’s starting to heal.

“Every time you till, you not only disrupt the bio-intensity that is happening under the soil, but you also heat up the soil. You’re tearing it up and letting the sun’s UV rays penetrate it, which will then heat up and kill off microorganisms.”

Read more: Organic no-till? Yeah, it’s a thing—here’s what’s involved.

Farming on the Fly

Peralta says that one of the earliest lessons he learned about farming is that “it never goes the way you expect it” despite the best laid plans. (And, to remind himself, he says this on a daily basis.)

“I call the crops my babies,” he says. “They’re fine one day. The next day you see slugs or caterpillars or aphids attacking them due to too much moisture overnight. But those days when things are up in the air and might fall where they land are nothing compared to the hectic restaurant days.

“Now farming is far more special to me—being able to feed our community.”

High Maintenance Babies

When it comes to the needs of Peralta’s garden, he cites tomatoes as the highest maintenance babies. “They take the longest to grow where they’re at peak production,” he explains.

“Right now we have tomato crops that are 4 feet high, but we want to start harvesting them at about 5 feet high.

“Getting to the point where the crop is healthy really comes from healthy soil,” he continues. “We’re at the point where we’re looking much deeper below the plant than most traditional gardening books relay. We’re looking into the soil and figuring out what some of the issues might be, instead of just treating the symptoms with pesticides like traditional farming.”

Read more: Get your garden going sooner with plant starts.

Bonus Bugs!

If you follow Friendly Hills Farm on Instagram, you’ll have noticed that recently Peralta took part in a live video interview hosted by his cousin, the comedian (and Saturday Night Live repertory player) Melissa Villaseñor. The chat focused on the role bugs play in the garden.

Peralta’s a staunch advocate of letting insects do their thing. “If you have a pot that’s been in your garden for months, you’ll see lots of life under there, like caterpillars and ear wigs—all beneficial insects,” he says. “By tilling we disrupt that ecosystem.”

Despite his appreciation for insects, Peralta does admit that aphids can be a particular scourge of the garden. “They’re just feeders of any new life. We try to deal with them by wiping them off and using organic herbicides. It’s all about observation rather than trying to control.”

Follow Friendly Hills Farm on Instagram.

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