Urban farm is a little piece of paradise for local couple
Larraine and Clive Segil don’t have to go far to get fresh eggs. They head out their kitchen door, up a few steps, past the Alpine and pygmy goats, to the chicken coop, where some 30 chickens and 20 quail produce a bounty of eggs in pastel colors you never see in your neighborhood supermarket.
It all started 36 years ago, when the couple, both natives of South Africa, purchased the sprawling hillside property they call home.
“Neither of us were happy until we found ground [Clive] could sink his hands into,” said Larraine, a serial entrepreneur who sold her last business seven years ago and is now the foundation chair for The Committee of 200, a group of female CEOs. “Having a concrete backyard with a swimming pool and potted plants is not our idea of being part of the land.”
You could say both inherited a DIY gene from their parents. Despite having no training in engineering or construction, Clive’s father, a physician, built and landscaped the family home outside of Johannesburg. At age 12, Clive followed suit — on a smaller scale — by building a doghouse. He also got interested in rose budding at an early age, not exactly a typical teenage hobby.
“It’s probably why I got into orthopedic surgery,” he joked during a recent visit on a sunny Sunday morning.
Larraine’s parents, both accomplished cooks, grew everything themselves, she said.
Shortly after Larraine, 65, and Clive, 75, moved into their present home, Clive started planting citrus trees: lemon, orange, grapefruit and the Asia-native pomelo. Also among the 350 fruit trees on the nearly two-acre property are plums, peaches and pluots, not to mention the date palms Clive and their full-time farm manager trucked in from the Coachella Valley.
Think that’s it? Think again. They grow avocados, papayas, mangoes and persimmons. There’s an entire banana grove. There are exotic cherimoya and sapote trees and other varieties most Angelenos have never heard of, let alone tasted — Cherry of the Rio Grande, Kei apple and Jabuticaba, a native of Brazil.
“I grow them because I can’t buy them,” explained Clive, as he walked through the orchard in his Little Farm shirt.
Little Farm is the name he and Larraine have given the land, located less than a mile from a major thoroughfare that is dotted with restaurants and retail stores. It’s too small to have a big field with neat rows, and because the property is sloped, the Segils built multiple walls from broken concrete to create stepped gardens. Dirt paths cross and wind, and at every turn there is another surprise.
An enthusiastic tour guide, Clive navigates the steep ups and downs with the surefootedness of the couple’s six full-time resident goats. Downslope from the grape vineyard — table grapes only — there is a koi pond, and next to that is one of the newer additions, a tilapia hatchery. When the fish get big enough, they become dinner.
Atop the rectangular hatchery sits a large tray in which baby green and red lettuce grow hydroponically. Water from the hatchery, augmented naturally with nitrogen from fish waste, fertilizes the lettuce.
Clive pulls out a plant and gently removes a leaf to share with visitors; bright and earthy, it would be the envy of any L.A. chef. Later, passing the crinkled persimmons hanging to dry on string outside of the couple’s home gym, he removed one, pulled out a pocket knife, and cut fat, juicy, sugar-sweet slices for all to sample.
Another more recent addition to the very top of the farm is beehives. Ten boxes, surrounded by hundreds of furiously buzzing bees, are home to the property’s resident pollinators. And Clive, who has his own white suit, mask and smoker, is now a member of several beekeeping societies.
When does Clive, who still works full-time, get around to doing all of this? Evenings and weekends, he said.
“This is my golf,” he joked. (Although he does a bit of that, too.)
While Clive is the grower and tender, Larraine is the maker. It is a role she comes by naturally and has explored in numerous ways. She is the author of multiple business books, two cookbooks and one novel. In 2011, driven by a desire to tell stories to her grandchildren and encourage multigenerational connections, Larraine released a box set of children’s CDs (rockingrandmamusic.com). A children’s cookbook is coming out later this year, too.
“Cooking and food is another thing you can do with family,” she said. “So, not only can you listen to music while you’re cooking, but you can cook with your kids.”
As an undertaking between husband and wife, Little Farm represents a delicious partnership. The couple’s pantry is filled with dozens of varieties of jam that Larraine makes herself: fig, caramel apple, nectarine, loquat, plum, peach and orange marmalade, to name a few.
“We give it to family and friends,” she said. “When we go out for dinner or for house gifts, I take something.”
She also makes bread with all sorts of ripe fruit from the farm: persimmons, sapotes, pumpkins and, of course, bananas.
For this, she actually visits a market and buys flour. The Segils also purchase butter and, occasionally, meat. But most of the couple’s food comes from their own backyard, including cheese. Naturally, Larraine makes this, too, thanks to the goats that joined Little Farm half a dozen years ago.
“I started with trial and error and threw away a ton of cheese until I got it right,” she said.
Now, she makes ricotta, feta and various types of chevre, as well as an oozy Camembert-style cheese. She uses only vegetarian rennet in the cheesemaking process.
The farm has yielded some unexpected lessons. For example, both Clive and Larraine have learned how to help birth a goat.
“It’s such a miracle to be a part of,” said Larraine. “When the baby comes out, you have to clean it up and wrap it in clean towels. …Within three minutes, the baby goat is trying to stand up. Within 10 minutes, it is trying to suck.”
And the Segils’ grandchildren know that eggs don’t grow in cartons in the grocery store. That’s because when they come to visit, they are put to work collecting eggs, feeding goats and emptying the compost cans from the kitchen.
“It’s part of our moral belief system,” Larraine said. “It’s a family bonding activity. It teaches children to respect the role that animals and plants play in one’s life, and that there is responsibility for life. You have to feed animals, care for them, make sure they have water.”
By emphasizing thoughtful and productive land use, Little Farm is also closely related in spirit to one of the couple’s favorite causes: Netiya. The Los Angeles-based interfaith network cultivates edible gardens on unused institutional land.
On paper, and even in practice, the Segils’ urban farming seems incredibly romantic. Clive said it offers “total relaxation and the ability to interact with every single aspect of nature.”
Makes you want to run out and buy a couple of chickens of your own, right? It requires an enormous commitment. Someone always has to be there to feed the animals. And the water bills? Despite a sophisticated greywater system, they are sky high.
But what Little Farm gives back to the Segils is huge, and it can’t be calculated in dollars or cents or even pounds of cheese.
As Larraine said: “I think we’re healthier because of it, happier because of it.” [t]