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Fighting the Food Desert, in the Desert: Sustainable Agriculture Comes to the Owens Valley

The Southern Inyo Certified Farmers Market in Lone Pine, CA is part of an active movement towards establishing more sustainable local produce in the Owens Valley area. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

In Southern California's urban communities, a war is being waged against the prevalence of food deserts -- communities which lack access to fresh, healthy food due to socioeconomic and geographic conditions. Common strategies to winning this war include opening certified farmer's markets, creating community gardens, and propagating health and nutrition education.

But food deserts are not exclusive to the urban setting of the congested, polluted concrete jungle. Even in rural areas, the glut of fast-food restaurants, the dearth of fresh produce, and a sustainable means to grow them locally are just as problematic to the community.

In the Owens Valley town of Lone Pine, some 200 miles north of Los Angeles, where the Great Basin Desert meets the Sierra Nevada mountains, a similar war against the food desert is also being waged, and in 2010, a group of local growers and residents decided to get ready for battle by growing food locally for both personal consumption and for the community.

"We were concerned about the lack of fresh nutritious produce and few healthy food choices in general in southern Inyo county," said Jane McDonald, a food grower, baker, and board member of the Owens Valley Growers Cooperative, which was established in 2012. "We formed the co-op in order to support increased local production and markets, developing a local sustainable foodshed, supporting development of our local economy."

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The cooperative, as its home base, utilized the in-kind support of the Metabolic Studio IOU Garden, a shared growing and educational space located on a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power-owned lot established by artist Lauren Bon.

Just a few blocks south of the garden on the town's main thoroughfare, Highway 395, fast-food chains dot the local landscape, mainly there to satiate travelers on the long drive heading to Mammoth Lakes, Death Valley, or Reno. But they are also well-patronized by many of the locals.

And where there are healthier food options in this community of 2,000 residents, the price of menu items is inflated. Although the abundantly agricultural San Joaquin Valley is a mere 60 miles away -- as the crow flies -- on the opposite side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the economics of transporting produce to this sparsely populated part of California drives up the cost of food in the local restaurants: A salad that costs around $12 here would be priced at $7 or $8 in urban Southern California.

"That is a huge issue," said McDonald. "One also has to take into account the quality of non local foods that are harvested prematurely in order to travel, and have less taste and nutritional value."

A local food grower harvests organic chard at Lone Pine's Metabolic IOU Garden. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

In May of this year, the cooperative established the first weekly certified farmers market in the area -- the Southern Inyo Certified Farmers Market, which takes place on Friday afternoons, alternating weekly between Lone Pine and nearby Independence, 15 miles to the north.

At the Lone Pine market, which naturally uses the Metabolic Studio IOU Garden as its venue, a handful of farmers set up their wares on picnic tables. For those accustomed to big-city bazaars such as the bustling and immense Hollywood Farmers Market, the market at Lone Pine is a much quieter, intimate affair, with about a dozen people (and one live goat, owned by the local 4-H Club and available for grass-cutting services) present. After all, the entire population of Lone Pine is equal to just a couple blocks' worth of Hollywood alone. But the market is no less a community asset, attracting regulars and new visitors alike, and even the vendors enthusiastically look forward to selling each week.

"I've been gardening for over 60 years now... I'm excited to be doing this," said Beverly VanDerWall, one of the vendors and OVGC growers, who also runs the town's pharmacy.

A few tables away, McDonald is also here as a market vendor, selling bags of organic Rocky-Top Lettuce that she grows in Independence.

"We have a lot of support from people in Independence and Lone Pine, and the market is growing week by week," she said. "There are definitely folks out there thinking about growing more food next year for the market. We also hope to have more eggs, and baked goods soon."

Still, sustainable agriculture in the Owens Valley faces some geologic and bureaucratic challenges.

The desiccated landscape of the Owens Valley, just two miles from the Farmers Market. | Photo: Elson Trinidad
On the opposite side of the IOU Garden is a pile of composted soil. What might appear as just an ordinary pile of dirt is actually an integral part of growing fruits and vegetables in this region. Most of the area's soil is alkaline in content, being part of a desert environment that became even drier after the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power diverted water originating from mountain creeks into the L.A. Aqueduct a century ago. Groundwater pumping by the LADWP has also lowered or emptied local aquifers. With only seven inches of annual rainfall, agriculture is virtually impossible to grow in the Owens Valley unless the soil is regularly amended with compost, and the land is properly irrigated. The IOU Garden's Soil Exchange program has distributed nearly 500 cubic yards of composted soil to 170 growers in the region over the past three years.

And though the IOU Garden is a lush, green agricultural oasis in the town, upon close inspection, one will notice that none of the corn, grapes, chard, chili peppers, squash, or other crops are actually growing from the ground. All of the plants, save for decorative flowers and grasses, are mandated by the LADWP to grow in raised planters only.

The LADWP owns some 250,000 acres of land in the region for aqueduct-related water rights and power utility right-of-way purposes, and has set strict limits on its usability. The Owens Valley Growers Cooperative, which currently farms on a combined total of five acres on land loaned by private owners, would like to eventually use even a small fraction of those quarter-million acres of LADWP-owned land for sustainable agriculture.

"We are seeking to expand our small acreage. So much of the land is publicly owned here, we are hoping that the DWP and other public agencies will understand and support the benefits of small sustainable farms," said McDonald. "Supporting small sustainable farming would be a positive step forward for the next 100 years of L.A. management."

Aside from the century-old L.A. Aqueduct, the Owens Valley and urban Los Angeles also share respective agricultural pasts -- The Native Americans and early farmers of Inyo county diverted water from Sierra Nevada mountain creeks for irrigation purposes. Apples once grew abundant in the same Manzanar that would later become a World War II internment camp. Hay, oats, and corn once sprouted plentiful for the livestock that fed on it on land that is now open expanses of sagebrush. As the city 200 miles away that grew up on tapping the water supply of this area struggles with reconciling its agricultural past with its more urban future to feed its densely populated multitudes, why should the quiet, pastoral valley on the other end of the Aqueduct have any difficulty growing a few more acres of fruits and veggies to meet the nutritional needs of the mere 20,000 that live in this region?

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About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Managing Editor of KCET's 50th Anniversary website and writes the "Transpacific Routes" and "Concrete and Chaparral" columns on KCET's blogs.
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