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Local keeps roots planted in Malibu

Pictured is flowering organic arugula at Alan Cunningham’s Vital Zuman Organic Farm. Chris Bashaw/22nd Century Media
Pictured are oranges and potatoes available at the Vital Zuman farm stand. Chris Bashaw/22nd Century Media
Ashleigh Fryer, Senior Editor
3:36 pm PST March 3, 2014

“Not many people live the way I do,” Alan Cunningham said, weaving his boot-laden steps around patches of sprouting dill, heads of organic romaine and flowering arugula with the practice and care of someone whose own roots go as deep as those of his crops.

“It seems normal to me.”

Cunningham spent his childhood on the same land that now supports his livelihood, the Vital Zuman Organic Farm on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. In those days — during the 1960s and 70s when Malibu was still largely a rural settlement, populated by mostly middle class “public school teachers, aerospace workers and blue collar laborers,” according to Cunningham — Cunningham’s family cultivated their six acre property as a family wide “hobby.”

“Any place I stand on this property, I can think back and five, 10, 20 years and remember what I was doing,” Cunningham said. “What we were doing here as a family was sacred and important. I always felt that this was going to be an agricultural institution; it would’ve been a shame to let it be anything other than an authentic, organic farm.”

After spending several years away from home, attending UCLA and eventually working as a professional marketer in Nevada, Cunningham returned to the family farm in 1995 to pursue what he was “destined” for; turning “half a century of authentic, organic food growth” into a certified community farm. 

“It’s been a long process of staying the course; you have to stay the course to make this happen,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s operation, carried out with the help of numerous volunteers and interns, now consists of a farm stand on the property, stalls in several of the area’s farmer’s markets, including Calabasas, Santa Monica, Agoura and Pacific Palisades, and farm boxes full of choice produce which are sold and delivered around Malibu and surrounding areas. 

Cunningham’s six acres — purchased three years ago by Malibu resident Don Sterling, allowing Cunningham to continue the costly undertaking of running his small, organic farm — also boast approximately 40 bee hives, which produce honey that generates the bulk of Cunningham’s revenue in the dry months, three fruit orchards and various other crops that change with the seasons. 

“We’re proving that there can be a different way, other than going to trader Joe’s or Whole Foods,” Cunningham said. “ By fate, we’re right here on PCH — it’s a natural organic stage for people passing by. It’s a ‘show me’ thing — we’re showing people that what we’re doing here is authentic agriculture.”

Having watched the evolution of Malibu throughout his life, Cunningham realizes that operations like his have become few and far between. 

While many Malibuites grow, consume and share their own food as a hobby, the days of children being raised on the bounty of a community farm are not as common as they used to be.

“Growing up here gave me an awareness and boldness to try new things. There was an innate, immediate ability to be open and explorative with different foods,” Cunningham said. “We need a lot more farms. Not big ones, but small, sustainable ones. This is a small farm and a small market, but of the things I have, I have the best stuff.” 

It is because of the services that local organic farms provide for individuals that Cunningham believes thinking local first is the best contribution you can make to your community.

“Come here first,” Cunningham said. “Get your produce here — your avocados, your lettuce — then walk across the street and pick up your milk and bread from Pavilions.”

But, aside from the quality products people can find at their local farm stands, Cunningham believes people garner an even greater benefit from visiting establishments like his, a benefit which every Malibuite has at their fingertips by virtue of living in this community. 

“We’re very blessed here. I get up every morning and the air is wet and cool and fresh — you feel like you’re in the wild,” Cunningham said. 

“That’s why a lot of our best customers come from the city; they want to connect to nature. The people of Malibu don’t need to come here to get that fix. It’s right in front of them, outside their doors.”