California Farmer Warren Weber Believes That Good Greens Come in Small Packages

updated 12/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1986 01:00AM

Don't sing to Warren Weber about corn that's as high as an elephant's eye; he prefers maize as low as an elephant's toe. Weber also likes his beets to be petit, and he doesn't want his lettuce to get a big head. Weber, 46, owns California's Star Route Farm, which produces many of the jolly green midgets that have taken the place of life-size vegetables in some of the nation's hottest restaurants.

Weber's baby vegetables grace the pricey plates at such standard bearers of the new cuisine as Berkeley's Chez Panisse, Michael's in Santa Monica and New York's Jams. The popularity of mini-veggies has as much to do with aesthetics as it does with taste. "With a small size," says Weber, "you don't have to cut or tear the leaf. It looks delicate, the colors are beautiful and it's tastier. With the small lettuce you can just drop a head on the plate and you have a rosette."

Weber's big area of expertise is greens; he grows 10 varieties of lettuce alone, including such exotics as red leaf, red salad bowl, butter, red butter and green leaf. Weber grows his specialty crops—which are the big money-makers—in 15 greenhouses on his 40-acre farm in Bolinas, 15 miles northwest of San Francisco. "We would have to grow 15 acres of another crop to bring in what each of the greenhouses does," says Weber. The hottest hothouse seller is arugula, an exotic green with a nutty, mustardy taste, much favored in nouvelle salads. Weber sells it for $4 a pound.

Other fast movers are curly cress and—in the spring—chervil. Then there is radicchio, whose sudden popularity mystifies Weber. "It can have a bitter taste," he says, "but some people like that." His radicchio crop is still in the experimental stage, with Weber and his staff of 18 trying to come up with a strain that will be commercially uniform. "The problem with the exotic vegetables is that they are not always true to type," he says.

Weber became king of the yuppie vegetable market about three years ago when Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse, sent a team of chefs to his organic farm. "When I asked them what they wanted—we were growing regular-size lettuce at the time—they pointed to the small lettuces that were just beginning to grow," says Weber. He was skeptical at first, but he delivered the baby lettuces nonetheless. Now, he admits, "I'm won over." In addition to picking vegetables before they're fully grown, Weber also produces genetically altered mini-veggies.

Although the organic and baby vegetable business has been good to Weber, he has gone into his share of agricultural blind alleys. In the early days, he says, the conventional wisdom was that comfrey, an herb that supposedly has curative powers, was going to be a big seller. He planted an acre of it and lost money when the local storekeepers all bought imported comfrey. Another time, elephant garlic, a pungent cross between a leek and an onion, looked like a sure thing. Again, Weber planted an acre; again, nobody wanted any.

Weber says he knew what he wanted to be when he was just 7. "All the other boys wanted to be firemen," he says, "but I wanted to be a farmer." The son of an advertising executive and a housewife, Weber grew up in St. Louis. He studied agriculture at Cornell, then transferred to Wesleyan, graduating with a degree in English. After he got his Ph.D. in English from Berkeley, he and his 46-year-old wife, Marion, an artist, started Star Route in 1974. Weber feels secure in the direction he has taken. "I can't imagine people turning back to heavy foods," says the avantgardener, looking ahead to smaller and better things.

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