What comes to mind when you hear the word "luffa"? Is it the brightly colored, meshy plastic bath sponge? The rough, dense exfoliator, often tacked to the end of a wooden stick, that you might find at the drugstore?
If you haven't yet visited The Luffa Farm in Nipomo, chances are these are the only types of luffa you've encountered: either the fake ones made of plastic, or the highly processed natural luffa that doesn't exactly leave you skin feeling soothed.
- Photo Courtesy Of The Luffa Farm
- STRAIGHT OFF THE VINE Before drying out and becoming what we know as luffas, the natural sponges start off looking like squash.
The Nipomo-based Luffa Farm's products are grown right here on the Central Coast—yes, grown. Contrary to popular belief, luffas don't come from the sea but grow inside of what looks like a large squash. Natural luffas sold in the bath aisle at drugstores are often grown outside the country and must be fumigated when they are imported, leaving them stiff, brittle, and not very spongy.
Supervisor Brooklynn Gamble told me the story of how The Luffa Farm got its start, the growing process, and what sets the farm's luffas apart.
Initially, Luffa Farm owner Deanne Coon started growing the gourds as a hobby after a friend was given mystery seeds for a college class. Coon and her friend finally figured out what the seeds were when the plant dried up on the vine and revealed its inner fibers, what we know as a natural bath sponge.
"This was the first greenhouse that was built. This greenhouse has about 300 plants in it," Gamble said as we stood in the humid structure. "They grow an average of 17 inches in the summertime."
Today, the farm has three greenhouses with about 1,000 total plants, from which they harvest between 12,000 and 15,000 luffas each year.
"The luffa itself just grows right out the back of the flower, and grows to whatever size the vine can support," Gamble said. "When the flower dies, it is actually edible. ... To me it tastes just like summer squash."
But Gamble and the other farm employees don't eat them much because they're trying to get the luffa out of the plant.
If you leave it, it'll keep growing," Gamble said. "When it gets too heavy, instead of rotting or falling off, the vine sucks all the water and nutrients back out. ... The luffa fibers, which are just the veins that feed the water and nutrients throughout the rest of the fruit and seeds, those get thicker and denser."
Once the luffa is all dried up, they cut it off the vine, shake all the seeds out, and soak it in water to peel the skin off.
"From there, all we have to do is rinse the rest of the residue out, trim them into whatever size pieces we need, let them dry, put a label on them, and they're ready to go," Gamble said.
The final product is nothing like luffas found at the drugstore: it's a "soft, washable, non-abrasive plant-based sponge," as the farm's website describes it.
All this is accomplished with a staff of just seven people, who also lead the visitors on educational tours and run the gift shop. At the beginning of the pandemic, the farm had to close to the public to comply with stay-at-home orders, but the staff kept plenty busy.
"We have a fully functional website that people can shop at," Gamble said. "We had so many orders off of our website from people who had been here before, just trying to support small businesses. We had so many orders that we were still working full time."
Now that The Luffa Farm is back open to the public, and the state's COVID-19 business restrictions are officially lifted, Gamble said things are beginning to look more normal again.
"Within the last couple of months, as travel has increased, and people are going out more, we're seeing business almost like it was pre-pandemic," Gamble said. "It's been really nice the last month or two."
While other domestic luffa farms do exist, to Gamble's knowledge, The Luffa Farm in Nipomo is the only one open to the public.
"There is one in Central California, but it's not related to us. And as far as I'm aware, they're not open to the public, they're just growing for commercial purposes," Gamble said. "We're basically the only place you can go learn about how luffas grow in the United States."
Whether you're looking to buy a luffa or learn more about where they come from, The Luffa Farm is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Wednesday through Sunday; visit theluffafarm.com for more info.
• The San Luis Obispo County Housing Trust Fund was selected as a recipient of more than $1.8 million from the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Community Development Financial Institutions Rapid Response Program. "The Rapid Response Program was authorized by Congress in 2021 to provide grants to support, prepare for, and respond to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic," according to the Housing Trust Fund. "Funding under the program will be used to support the delivery of financial products and services to underserved people and communities in San Luis Obispo County." Δ
Malea Martin, staff writer for New Times' sister paper the Sun, wrote this week's Strokes and Plugs. Send tidbits to email@example.com.