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'Until the 1950s, Los Angeles County was the top agricultural county in the U.S.'

Departures is KCET's oral history and interactive documentary project that thoroughly explores neighborhoods through the people that live there. In January and early February, SoCal Focus is taking readers through the Richland Farms series one day at a time. Follow all posts in this series here.

Thanks to its proximity to the entertainment business, Compton in the 1980s and 1990s was singled out as an uniquely troubled place. That characterization, however, was not exactly unique and could have been applied to a plethora of other cities across the United States. But what is truly different about Compton--and still ignored by popular culture--is Richland Farms, the city's agricultural neighborhood.

To Rachel Surls, the Director of the Los Angeles County Cooperative Extension-- University of California's initiative to provide training and programs in agriculture, gardening, good nutrition, among other skills--Richland Farms is a unique example of Los Angeles County past.

"Until the 1950s, Los Angeles County was the top agricultural county in the U.S. From approximately 1910 to 1955, this was it; it was bigger than Iowa or any of those Midwestern states in terms of its agriculture. We grew everything here," Surls explained. "It sort of dates back to the founding of Los Angeles when people first came and looked at Los Angeles as a potential site for a mission. They saw that it had great soil, they saw that things grew well here and they thought, 'ah ha, perfect place for farming.' So that's how it started."

Wheat and cattle were some of the major products of the area, and with the gold rush and the intercontinental railroad, the population began to grow. "The small agricultural village--basically--of Los Angeles started to become an agricultural powerhouse, farmers started growing different things. They started experimenting with citrus for example, and by the early 20th century, the whole L.A. basin and Southern California were full of citrus and other fruit trees," said Surls.

It was such a big industry that the L.A. Chamber of Commerce used farming to lure new people, and land was subdivided for the purpose of small half acre to three acre farms. "I think one of the reasons why farming became so successful in Los Angeles, and places like Compton, was because there was a market here to begin with. As the population grew (...) you had a built-in market place, so small farming communities close to Los Angeles like Compton could easily get stuff to market in L.A. and sell it at a reasonably good price," Surls said. Ultimately, however, farming in the county suffered due to its own success. "As the population grew and grew and grew it pushed out the farming communities."

A look back to Los Angeles County 60 years ago demonstrates how much has changed since the majority of farms ceased to exist. A report from the 1950s shows that there were 10,000 small farms. Today? It's much more rare. "I think Richland Farms was one of these communities and it's about the only one left," Surls noted. "It's very unique, it showcases a trend in our society from the early 20th century that continues today in Compton."

Richland Farms' survival is thanks to Griffith D. Compton, who in 1888 donated his land to be incorporated as the city of Compton and stipulated that a portion remain zoned as agricultural.

44 years later, Compton was home to the first self-help cooperative, a reaction to the Great Depression. Instead of accepting public assistance, Comptonites organized and worked in exchange for goods. As movement's the slogan went, "Self-help beats charity: Charity is for abnormal people in normal times; we are normal citizens in abnormal times." Baking, fishing, canning, gardening, farming and gleaning--an activity that has received attention during the current economic recession--were all part of the labor that yielded an edible payoff. A year later, 45 cooperatives formed in Los Angeles County with the idea spreading across the country.

Today, urban agriculture is making a comeback. Surls says a survey found a 19% increase in home vegetable gardening between 2008 and 2009 and attributes it to two things: the economy and a new way of thinking about the environment and nutrition. "Even though we haven't been a huge agricultural producer since the 1950s, I'd like people to remember that food matters in Los Angeles." Take a look at Surls' curation of links in her Twitter stream and you'll see why.

Three more video interviews with Surls can be seen here.

The Departures Richland Farms series is broken down into two parts as interactive murals: The Past and The Present. The above information is based on The Present's seventh mural hotspot.

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