Vital Zuman Organic Farm Closing After 62 Years in Malibu

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Kole Smith, Ella Taylor and John Pietro at Vital Zuman Organic Farm

One of Malibu’s oldest remaining family farms, which has been owned and/or operated continuously by the Cunningham family since 1954, will be closing its doors on June 19. The Vital Zuman Organic Farm and roadside stand, located at 29127 Pacific Coast Highway (across from Point Dume Plaza), has been a local institution for decades. But the 62-year tradition will fold once Alan Cunningham vacates the property in order to make way for a new tenant, who plans to turn it into a farm-to-table enterprise.

The community hosted a gathering at the farm on Saturday, June 11 to celebrate Vital Zuman. The festival included live music and was hosted by several Malibu High School students.

News around town was that current owners, billionaire couple and part-time Malibu residents Donald and Shelly Sterling, were evicting Cunningham from the farm. However, Shelly Sterling said the closure of Vital Zuman is a result of a rent dispute and unpaid taxes.

The Sterlings purchased the property from Cunningham in 2010 for $2.35 million. Either in foreclosure or close to foreclosure at the time, Cunningham claimed Sterling engineered a “short sale” on the property that hurt him financially, although these claims could not be substantiated. The farm originally came into Cunningham’s possession after both of his parents died and he got a loan to buy out his two brothers.

Cunningham said he chose to sell to Sterling after being promised he could continue to live on the property and farm it, but he never asked to get that promise in writing. He claimed it wasn’t clear to him at the time that he was required to pay the property taxes in lieu of rent, which he said amount to about $30,000 a year. 

Shelly Sterling said in a phone interview with The Malibu Times that there’s no way Cunningham could have misunderstood that he was expected to pay the property taxes. 

“He knew exactly what the deal was,” she said. “Our agreement was that he’d pay the taxes and we’d pay all the rest of the expenses.”

According to Shelly and the Sterling’s attorney, Doug Walton, Cunningham did pay the taxes in full for the first two or three years, but then stopped. 

“He had a woman living with him who paid for everything,” Sterling claimed, “but then she moved out.”

“There has been no payment for the last three years,” Sterling went on. “I like to help people, but I don’t like to be taken advantage of. We gave him three years free, and I tried and tried to give him an advantage.” 

Last December was when Shelly Sterling first called and let Cunningham know she wanted him to move out. 

“You have 60 days,” he recalled her saying. He said he kept hoping the Sterlings would work with him on the finances, but claims that didn’t happen.

“They’ve been incredibly nonparticipational and non-creative with this situation,” Cunningham said.  

Shelly Sterling said that just isn’t true — she said they tried to counsel him, and tried to work out several different methods of payment. 

“We finally asked him to just pay something, and he said ‘No, I don’t want to,’” she recalled. 

Walton concurred. “He could’ve stayed there on the farm if he’d just paid the taxes. He was given a long notice and had numerous opportunities to bring himself current.”

Vital Zuman had a fire in an outbuilding on May 31 that destroyed the electrical system. So, for the past few weeks, the property has been without power. Sterling said the cause of the fire still hasn’t been determined.

“[The Vital Zuman Farm] has always been about providing service to the community, it’s not about having a farm,” Cunningham said. “We’ve hosted hundreds of field trips and farm tours for elementary school classes. I’ve given my entire life to create this — all of my time and my fortune for the past 20 years.”

Cunningham got Malibu’s first organic certification in 2000 and has been operating the farm his parents started, which has three main orchards with over 300 fruit trees , berry patches, bee hives and vegetables.  His parents’ goal of growing organic produce without chemicals was decades ahead of its time. Cunningham, now 61, was “born and raised” along with his two brothers on the 6.2 acre property which includes a now-vacant residence.

In the meantime, life has been tumultuous for the Sterlings since purchasing the farm. In 2012, Donald began treatment for prostate cancer, became estranged from his wife and their son Scott, 32, died of an accidental drug overdose. In 2014, Donald was diagnosed as being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, was banned from the NBA for life because of racist comments and sold the Clippers for $2 billion.