Combat veteran, burglar buster, certified grower and farmers market manager — not many people can claim such a résumé. But 35-year-old Brian Weiss, who runs the Palos Verdes farmers market, juggles all these identities and more as the scion of the South Bay's first family of farmers markets. Only a fierce sense of duty ties together the diverse strands of his career.
Farmers markets are in his blood. His mother, Mary Lou Weiss, is the longtime manager of the large and successful Torrance farmers markets and founded, ran or consulted for a dozen venues over the last two decades, including Hermosa Beach, El Segundo, Carson, Manhattan Beach, Lawndale and Palos Verdes. She serves on the Certified Farmers Market Advisory Committee and heads a subcommittee organizing a major new training program for California farmers market managers.
His father, Jim, who worked as a manager in the airline industry for most of his career, now raises and hybridizes orchids, which he sells at the Venice and Torrance markets.
Brian started at farmers markets as a teenager, selling flowers at his mother's Hermosa Beach venue. After earning a degree from El Camino Community College, he worked at Whole Foods for 12 years, in grocery, dairy and receiving.
He started co-managing the Palos Verdes farmers market in 2001 after his mother suffered a mild heart attack.
"She was working seven days a week, and the only way that she was willing to take a day off was if I took this market," he says.
In 2004, out of a desire to serve his country, Brian joined the Marine Corps Reserves, training at Camp Pendleton one weekend a month and two weeks a year. He knew when he joined that he'd see active duty, and in 2006 he served seven months in Somalia and Djibouti.
In late 2009 he was called up again, and his unit, the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance, was deployed to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold and the world's largest opium-producing region.
"It was pretty much where all the combat casualties come from," he says. "We were lucky that we only lost seven people in our battalion of 800."
Weiss served as a gunner on a light armored vehicle — "light" in the sense that it weighed only 15 tons. His unit served in remote areas, living much of the time in a mud compound exposed to the rain, eating local goats.
"We took thousands of pounds of heroin and marijuana off the streets," he says. "And we beat more IEDs [improvised explosive devices] than anyone else in the entire area. Beating them is finding them and not dying."
Back home, his mother was beside herself. "It was a mother's worst nightmare. I never knew where he was, except that he was often in danger."
His co-manager at the Palos Verdes market, Carri Zotti, had worked with him and kept the books since 2001, and she took over when he was deployed. They have also had an assistant, Ed Iwasaka, the last four years.
Weiss volunteered for 10 years as a domestic violence counselor in Redondo Beach, and the police chief there encouraged him to apply to the department when he returned from his first deployment. Since 2008, he has worked as a patrol officer there.
"I do like catching burglars and drug addicts," he said. "I book a lot of people."
Shifts are assigned by seniority, so as a recent hire he had to work weekends, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. This kept him from showing up at the Palos Verdes market, which takes place on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Hawthorne Boulevard and Silver Spur Road. But a few weeks ago he secured another shift, 2 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., that allows him to attend the market regularly.
The market, which is in an affluent area, was never exactly a hotbed of crime, but on occasion he has chased off till-snatchers. Criminals would be messing with the wrong guy, 6 feet, 3 inches, 210 pounds, with a physique honed by daily running and weightlifting. He needs to keep in top shape for his coming assignment to the Redondo Beach SWAT team, which does everything from serving warrants to dealing with barricaded gunmen.
So how could anyone possibly find time to do all this and be a grower too? As it turns out, he has registered as a certified producer with Los Angeles County on the basis of a few fruit trees in his backyard in Gardena but has not actually sold their produce at farmers markets.
Holding this certificate allows him to sponsor the market, since only registered producers, city agencies and nonprofits can serve as market sponsors. Some observers have criticized this provision as a loophole, since practically anyone with a plant can qualify, and Weiss agrees, in part. If stricter regulations require certified producers who sponsor markets to actually sell, he'd be happy to do so, he said.
"Some people use [this loophole] to line their pockets with cash, but that's not what's happening in this situation," he says. "I'm paid a modest wage, and the rest of the money goes to a nonprofit group."
The Palos Verdes market itself is a good mid-size venue that serves its community well, with about 25 farmers, most of whom have been there for a decade or more. It starts out slowly in the morning but gets busier after local residents have returned from worship.
Currently Ken Lee's stand has Gold Nugget mandarins grown in Reedley. With skins that are often coarse and pebbly, they won't win any beauty prizes, but they're sweet and seedless, with a pronounced floral odor of Mediterranean mandarin in the rind. Stehly Farms of Valley Center has excellent citrus organically grown in Valley Center, including Washington navel oranges, Eureka and Meyer lemons, and juice from Valencia oranges.
Vang Thao of Fresno always has a large assortment of very fresh Asian vegetables. This week his stand has particularly pristine, sweet spinach. Yasutomi, based in Pico Rivera, is highly regarded for its Japanese vegetables, including Japanese cucumbers, kabochas and pink, low-acid Momotaro tomatoes.
Smith Farms, which grows at several locations in Orange County, has a mix of winter vegetables, such as beets, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, but has also started to bring spring crops, like asparagus, strawberries and gorgeous artichokes.
Meanwhile, Brian Weiss is mulling over whether to reenlist in the Marine Reserves at the end of the year. The world is an unstable place, he says, and if his unit is deployed abroad he wants to be there to back up his buddies.
"I don't know," he says. "If my mom had a choice, she'd say no."