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Meet The Ladies Who Are Growing Food In Los Angeles

Leigh Adams
Leigh Adams is an interpretative horticulturist at the Los Angeles Arboretum. | Clarissa Wei
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A collaboration between Link TV and TAL, "Big Cities" showcases community-driven solutions for global urban challenges. For more stories about urban farming, watch our episode on Sustainable Urban Farming.

“I really wish there was some way we can revert to a more agrarian culture,” Manju Kumar, farm manager of Sarvodaya Farms in Pomona says. “A lot of the issues we have today it because we don’t understand our connection to nature.” 

When Kumar, originally from India, moved to the greater Los Angeles area in 1986, she started growing food in her backyard. She kept it simple, like burying her food waste in the garden to increase fertility. Her fruit trees and vegetables weren’t particularly producing in abundance, but it was better than nothing 

“And then I went to the Los Angeles Arboretum and learned about permaculture,” she says. 

Permaculture is a holistic way of growing food, centered around regenerative methods that don’t require extraneous inputs. At the Arboretum, on an off-site demonstration farm, instead of building in bags of fertilizer, they built soil by using cardboard, horse bedding, yard waste, food scraps, weeds, and wood chips. By layering carbon materials with nitrogen materials, water is retained and weeds are discouraged. The soil is also less likely to become compacted. 

Kumar took that lesson to heart and applied it to her home, with great success. 

Today, she is in charge of Sarvodaya Farms, a mini-farm that composts 100,000 pounds of organic waste annually and has produced over 14,468 pounds of food on less than half an acre on a residential lot in suburban Pomona. The farm operates under a CSA program and has a farmer training program that teaches people the ropes of growing food.

Manju Kumar of Sarvodaya Farms
Manju Kumar of Sarvodaya Farms. | Clarissa Wei

“I see [farming] as a powerful act of resistance, especially for women activists who are looking to make a difference,” Katie Lewis, the farmer training program manager at Sarvodaya says. “It creates a sense of autonomy.” 

Autonomy in the sense that growers have control over the food that they eat and the fact that they can eat. It’s a problem in Southern California, where one in ten families either go hungry or face food insecurity, according to Good Food LA. In contrast, Southern California also happens to be one of the most productive agricultural territories in the world, with a year-round growing season.

This is, though, but a microcosm for the American agricultural system, where 10 percent of farms are responsible for 75 percent of our national food supply. 

“Food is a human right but even in our industrialized modern society, safe, clean food is seen as a privilege,” Linda Ly, a Los Angeles-based author on homesteading and gardening says. “We put all of our trust into an unknown supply chain when we should be taking charge of our health, as well as the health of our communities and our environment. We should not succumb to a few faceless corporations, with no investment in our well-being, telling us what to eat and at what cost.”

Farming is also a heavily male-dominated industry. According to the 2012 census, of the 2.1 million farmers in the United States, only 288,264 were women. 

With all that said, there are women out there taking the initiative and growing food in the greater Los Angeles area.

Here are some of many:

​Manju Kumar: Farm manager at Sarvodaya
Manju Kumar is the farm manager of Sarvodya Farm in Pomona, which is headed by her son Rishi Kumar. Kumar, who comes from an agricultural background, is a huge proponent of mulching (which is the act of covering bare soil with materials dried leaves, wood chips, or even newspaper), because it helps absorb water and encourages beneficial fungi. “With good soil, you don’t have to water that much,” she says. At Sarvodaya Farms, they employ a drip irrigation system. To get access to bulk materials for mulch, she recommends contacting your local tree trimming service for free wood chips and any nearby horse stables for manure. “If you’re growing food, you’re creating a connection with the plants and soil,” she says. “Now that I’m doing it, I’m addicted.”

Katie Lewis of Sarvodaya Farms
Katie Lewis of Sarvodaya Farms. | Clarissa Wei

Katie Lewis: Farmer training program manager at Sarvodaya
Katie Lewis is the farmer training program manager at Sarvodaya and has been there for the last two and a half years. She was trained through the UC Master Gardener Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her main tip is to recycle waste as much possible. Save all of your organic food scraps, she says, and recycle it back into the system by creating a compost pile or for people in more urban settings, a worm composter. “Even if you live in an urban area, a worm bin is doable,” she says, referencing a stacked box system in which worms are employed to break food down into fertilizer. For Lewis, growing her own food is ultimately a political act. “With the powers that we have in our backyards to feed ourselves, we cannot be reliant on other powers,” she says. 

Zoe Howell's Parking Space Garden
Zoe Howell's Parking Space Garden. | Zoe Howell

Zoe Howell: founder of a parking space garden
Zoe Howell is a wellness concierge in Los Angeles and managed a garden in her downtown apartment's open-air parking space for a couple of years before eventually moving out. “It was three four-by-four beds and several pots that surrounded the perimeter,” she says. “There were 40 to 50 [plants] growing out of that space in one time.” What intended to be a personal endeavor ended up growing into a community project, which Howell says she found the most rewarding. “There was never any money exchanged. Some people would bring down compost, people would drop off and take whatever they needed. It was an honor system,” she says. Chard, peppers, and kale were among some of the vegetables in her repertoire. “There’s something incredibly therapeutic about connecting with the nature cycle that way,” she says. “What’s the point of growing grass when you can grow food?”

Leigh Adams of Crescent Farm
Leigh Adams of Crescent Farm. | Clarissa Wei

Leigh Adams: interpretative horticulturist at the Los Angeles Arboretum 
A life-long gardener, Adams works as a horticulturist for the Los Angeles Arboretum, where she installed the Crescent Farm — a water-harvesting food forest that uses swales to collect water and mulch to store it. There, they grow an abundance of fruit trees including loquat and passion fruit. When the season is right, you might even see stalks of corn. Adams, who used to have property in the Mojave Desert, is especially passionate about water conservation, pointing out that it is a precious resource that will run out if society continues to consume it the way that we do. She likes to point out that for an average sprinkler, 50 percent of the water that shoots out is evaporated. “You wouldn’t just wash your car with a bottle of wine or an expensive perfume,” she says. “Water will be as valuable as those things one day.” For home gardeners, she recommends harvesting the little rainwater we get in Southern California and routing it into the garden. 

Mireya Arizmendi de Haddad
Mireya Arizmendi de Haddad | Mireya Arizmendi de Haddad

Mireya Arizmendi de Haddad: Garden assistant at CSUN 
Haddad is the garden and compost assistant at Cal State University of Northridge’s Institute of Sustainability. An immigrant from Mexico, she comes from a generation of farmers that always grew their own food. “When we moved to Los Angeles my father continued to grow his own food and we did that wherever we went,” she says. “We started container gardening on the rooftop in South Los Angeles and that’s when I realized how important it was. South Los Angeles was a food desert.” Eventually, the landlord told him to bring the plants down because it was allegedly going to break the roof. “It was just a few pots!” Haddad says incredulously. “That was my first form of resistance. I started to look out into nature and that shaped what I currently do,” she says. At CSUN, they collect organic matter from the campus coffee shop and process it to fertilizer the garden beds. Haddad is also an advocate for sharing resources. Seed sharing, for her, is incredibly important, as it ensures genetic diversity and empowers people to start growing their own food. At CSUN, they give away free seeds and soil to the community. “Everyone is free to come,” she says. 

Linda Ly
Linda Ly of Garden Betty | Linda Ly

Lindy Ly: homesteader and author at Garden Betty
Ly (an occasional KCETLink contributor) is a published book author and the force behind the popular homesteading blog, Garden Betty. She has been growing food in her Los Angeles quarter-acre since 2010. “Before that, I could barely keep herbs alive on my windowsill,” she says. “But when I moved onto the property, which had a thriving vegetable garden in place, I fell in love with working outside in the fresh air, digging my hands in the dirt, harvesting the fruits of my labor year-round, and marveling at how hundreds of pounds of food could grow from a few handfuls of tiny seeds cast on the soil. I found gardening to be extremely therapeutic, and edible gardening, in particular, to be incredibly rewarding on many levels. Backyard chickens came a year later, and I found myself fascinated and humbled by the hard work of my egg layers every week.” Echoing the other women in this piece, Ly believes that soil health is a paramount to a functioning garden. “Number-one reminder for gardeners, new or old, is that you're growing the soil first, and the plants second,” she says. “There's a lot of activity that happens underground where you don't see it, and it's important to feed the community of soil bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and other insects if you want them to continue to nourish your plants. This includes proper watering, fertilizing, and mulching to keep your soil healthy and alive. Soil isn't just dirt -- it's a living organism!” she says.

Top image: Leigh Adams holding corn grown at Crescent Farm. | Clarissa Wei

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