This article has been edited for context and re-published from UC Food Observer, your daily selection of must-read news on food policy, nutrition, agriculture and more, curated by the University of California as part of its UC Global Food Initiative.
"The things we loved a century or more ago…we’re fully on board with them again." - Rachel Surls, UC ANR advisor and author
For more than four decades, Los Angeles County was America's top agricultural producer. What happened? In "From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles" published by Angel City Press, the University of California's Rachel Surls and certified Master Gardener Judith Gerber detail the rise and fall of agriculture in Los Angeles County. More than 150 vintage images accompany the thoughtful narrative.
Writer Rose Hayden-Smith speaks with Surls about her book, her discoveries about the history of agriculture in Los Angeles County and what her thoughts are about its future in light of the urban challenges it is facing today.
What inspired you and [co-author] Judi Gerber to write this book?
Surls: It was different for both of us. During the time that I was the UC Cooperative Extension County Director — this was about 15-20 years ago — I came across some statistics for farming in Los Angeles County that really surprised me. Once — relatively recently — Los Angeles County was a huge agricultural producer, but no one seemed to know this. It was once the largest, most bountiful agricultural county in the U.S. (for four decades, between 1909-1949). It’s now primarily urban and is the most populated county in the nation. So there was this extreme turnabout in only 40-50 years. I was intrigued.
You are nationally known for your work in urban agriculture. Do you see ways in which L.A.’s past agricultural production and today’s urban ag scene are connected?
Surls: I see all kinds of parallels; it’s so interesting. For example, there are many things going on today that echo what was happening decades ago, or even more than a century ago. People aren’t aware of that earlier work, but they are repeating it.
One example is beekeeping. Recently, the city of Los Angeles made it legal to keep bees in backyards. So many people love this idea and the practice. Back in the 1860s, Los Angeles turned to beekeeping as an industry after the cattle industry fell apart. The nail in the coffin for cattle was a two-year drought. After the cattle industry failed, everyone thought Los Angeles was done; just a dry backwater. People who understood the value of bees — including John Muir — advocated for beekeeping. There were bee ranches sprinkled throughout the foothills of Los Angeles County; it became a mecca for beekeepers.
Chicken raising is another example. There were lots of small chicken ranches around Los Angeles County, in part because of low start-up costs and being an agricultural enterprise that was relatively easy to get into. Many people came to Los Angeles to start chicken ranches. Backyard chickens in Los Angeles County are extremely popular today.
The things we loved a century or more ago…we’re fully on board with them again.
We’re both fans of Douglas Sackman’s seminal book about the Southern California citrus industry, "Orange Empire," which explores the importance of boosters in helping encourage people to move to the region. How did boosterism impact agriculture in Los Angeles County?
Surls: Boosterism played a huge role in the past in terms of agriculture. Agriculture in Los Angeles has always gone hand in hand with real estate. One of the important trends of the early 20th century was to create neighborhoods where homes sat on 1-3 acres of land. These were called “small farm homes” or “little farms.” The owners were sometimes called “little landers.” The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the Los Angeles Times were very involved in promoting this concept. Landowners could subdivide big wheat farms and create opportunities for multiple land sales. Especially after the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, there was a rise in suburban mini-farms.
Boosters played an important role in promoting that model and in providing these small farmers with all sorts of training and resources. Each year, the Los Angeles Times and the Chamber of Commerce sponsored a small farm home contest throughout the Los Angeles basin.
Today, the notion of boosterism is a bit different. Many times you see a boosteristic quality to the way elected officials talks about urban agriculture and support it. That sounds great, but as things play out on the ground, talk of support doesn’t always translate into reality.
How is the history that you so beautifully portray informing your work today? Has your study of the past changed how you think about that work?
Surls: It is influencing my work. The small farm home era is especially important…the period from 1910 to 1940 or 1950. That era in particular has caused me to do a lot of thinking. People were trying to make a living growing food from their backyards. And it was hard. There were boosters telling them they could make a living on an acre or two. They were producing vegetables, berries, chickens, meat rabbits, eggs and more. But people often had to find different sources of income because they couldn’t earn enough from their small farm home.
Urban farmers today — like the small farm home folks of the past — are also often beginners. They are often extremely romantic about the notion of having a backyard or small urban farm. Then they crash into reality: it’s not that easy, there are regulations to follow and you really need technical skills and practical knowledge. This has reinforced my belief that urban agriculture has enormous potential if viewed as a community amenity and source of supplemental income. Technical support is essential to make it a reality for people.
Are vestiges of the past still apparent?
Surls: I’ll mention a couple. One is in Compton: that’s Richland Farms. It’s a 10-block square community that’s become quite famous in the last couple years. It’s a little neighborhood where people still have large lots. Many have horses and keep livestock. They treasure their agrarian lifestyle in the city. Richland Farms was one of the original small farm home communities. I found an advertisement for it in a 1910 issue of the Los Angeles Times. It was advertised as a place to buy a small farm home in the suburbs. For $650 an acre you could buy your own little piece of paradise in Richland Farms.
There were also a couple of small farm home communities created in the 1930s through the Subsistence Homestead Program, created under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. There was one in Reseda [located in the San Fernando Valley] and one in El Monte. You can drive around the El Monte neighborhood and see the vestiges of the small farm homes there. We discuss this program in the book.
The images and photos in the book are stunning. Can you tell me about them?
Surls: Selecting images was the most fun part of the book, because there are so many amazing images. Obviously, we fell in love with all of them and many didn’t make it into the book. The Los Angeles Public Library has an amazing collection of thousands and thousands of images of Los Angeles County over the decades. We also went to UCLA, to UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, to the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and several local historical societies. It was gratifying to find the photos that helped us tell the story.
What was grown in Los Angeles?
Surls: In the 1800’s, wine grapes were incredibly important, and Los Angeles was California’s first wine country — well before Napa and Sonoma became famous for their vineyards. Los Angeles farmers tried so many different crops...they often experimented with multiple crops. By the twentieth century, it was more monocropping oftentimes, especially during the era when Los Angeles County became the largest farm producer among counties in the nation. Again, that began in 1909-1910, which was also the era of a burgeoning professionalization of scientific agriculture. Sophisticated business models were developing, including cooperatives (Diamond Walnut, Sunkist). Farmers were trying to maximize what they could grow on a smallish plot of land, because land was already expensive here.
There was a lot of acreage in orchard crops. Citrus was at the top of list. In 1910, Los Angeles County was the largest producer of lemons. Walnuts were another important crop, as were oranges. The region also produced an abundance of vegetables crops, including cauliflower, lettuce, tomatoes, celery, and more. Berries were important: raspberries and strawberries. Flowers were a large crop, including roses and carnations for florists and for the large Los Angeles Flower Market in downtown.
Was the loss of agriculture a sudden or gradual process?
Surls: It was a fairly gradual process, but it accelerated at the end of World War II. Clearly, there was an enormous focus on producing food during the war years. But after the war ended, there was a tremendous rush of GIs coming back to Los Angeles and many, many people moving into the region for jobs in the defense industry. People were moving to Los Angeles County for the booming economy; they wanted suburbs and stores and schools for their children, and roads and freeways. Development drove the paving over of farmland. And this accelerated even more in the 1950s. Farmers struggled; they were taxed at the residential rate as opposed to the agricultural rate. Some experienced a 300% increase in property taxes in a single year. And it became very difficult to farm.
As development accelerated, the agricultural affiliated business — marketing associations and packinghouses — started closing. The infrastructure disappeared and there was no easy way to market crops. And at the same time, farmers are getting offers from developers to sell their land. One of my favorite parts of the book is a quote from a farmer in the 1950s, about trying to stay in business, what happened to him and why he gave up his farm, as so many others did. And there are lessons to be taken from all of this, even today.
What are your hopes and aspirations for Los Angeles County in terms of food production and resiliency in the food system moving forward?
Surls: I guess because I work in food systems the big thing that comes up for me is that Los Angeles was founded as a food production system. We are literally here because Spanish explorers saw the region and knew it would be a great place to grow food. Los Angeles — or El Pueblo de la Reyna de Los Angeles*, as it was first called — was designed specifically to be a food producer and a food hub for Alta California. Even before that, the native people of Los Angeles harvested abundant wild crops and their culture promoted equitable access to food resources. [*Editor's Note: Another spelling is "El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles"; Rachel and her co-author relied on "The Founding Documents of Los Angeles: A Bilingual Edition" by Doyce Nunis.]
Now we have a food crisis: food security is an enormous issue in this county. We have more kids at risk for hunger than in any other place in America. We need to focus on producing more food, not wasting food, on sharing food and distributing it more efficiently. We need to develop policies to make it possible for people to have healthy food to eat.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with your readers?
Surls: People should know that agriculture is by no means gone in Los Angeles County. In addition to a very active school, home, community and urban agriculture movement — including thousands of backyard gardeners — we have commercial agriculture in Los Angeles County. Some takes place in urban settings. There’s also quite a bit of farming in the Antelope Valley, where you can still see cherry and peach orchards, alfalfa fields, and carrot production. In fact, we are one of the largest carrot producing counties in the United States, believe it or not. The bag of “baby carrots” you buy at the store (which are actually regular-sized carrots cut to “baby” proportions) may have been grown in L.A. County’s Antelope Valley.
Agriculture is not entirely behind us…it’s still part of Los Angeles County today.
Top Image: Photograph of about 50 chickens standing in an outdoor pen, ca.1900. Two buckets of collected eggs sit in the foreground. A bearded man and young boy in strawhat stand in the background against a wooden fence near a barn. | Courtesy of USC Libraries/California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960