The Great Depression arrived as Los Angeles was booming. Oil was big business. Automobiles had begun to transform the landscape. The movie studios had come to Hollywood. Industry was increasing throughout the Southland. And Los Angeles County was the most productive farming county in the US. At first, the 1929 stock market crash did not have much impact on the average Angeleno. But quickly, unemployment rose. By January 1930, a Los Angeles City Council resolution noted that “the unemployment situation is becoming more and more acute each day” (Leader, 1991, p. 4). The situation grew severe in the months that followed. Of 700,000 jobless people in California in June, 1932, fully half were residents of Los Angeles County (Kerr & Taylor, 1935).
Deprivation existed along side over-abundance and waste. Farmers were unable to harvest all of their produce, often because they couldn’t afford labor, and enormous quantities of food were left in the fields as people went hungry.
One response of Los Angeles County residents was to organize into “self-help cooperatives”. Unlike marketing cooperatives, self-help cooperatives were based on bartering labor for goods, for example, harvesting farmer’s crops for a share of the harvest. Members were unemployed, often retired people who preferred to work rather than accept public assistance. The first such cooperative was organized in Compton in 1932. A year later 45 such cooperatives had been established in LA County. The movement spread to other parts of the US, but was strongest in Southern California, especially Los Angeles County. In 1934, there were 14,000 members of self-help cooperatives in LA County, about 10% of the total US membership (Panunzio, Church, & Wasserman, 1939). Cooperatives usually had elected leaders, and were organized into area “conferences”.
Farm work and gardening were common components of the self-help cooperatives, although they encompassed a wide variety of activities, including bakeries, fishing, canning and more. Typically, members worked 16 hours per week in support of their cooperative and its projects. At the cooperative in Santa Monica, members worked at local dairies for milk and cheese. They had an arrangement with the College of Agriculture at UCLA to tend the trees at UCLA's experimental farm in exchange for fruit. The Huntington Park Cooperative had vegetable gardens on vacant land, harvesting more than 27,000 pounds of fresh produce in just one quarter of 1936. Typically, cooperatives were able to find vacant buildings to use at no charge for meeting places, to store their bartered goods, and to conduct business.
Many cooperatives helped local farmers harvest their produce in exchange for a share of the harvest, often the “seconds” that were unmarketable. Japanese farmers were especially receptive to bartering with the cooperatives for labor in exchange for food (Kerr & Taylor, 1935).
Through participation in these cooperatives, families were able to secure 60 to 75% of their food budget, and other supplies as well, such as second-hand clothes. The movement’s slogan was “Self-help beats charity: Charity is for abnormal people in normal times; we are normal citizens in abnormal times”.
Kerr, C., & Taylor, P. S. (1935). Self-help cooperatives in California Essays in Social Economics (pp. 191-225). Berkely, CA: University of California Press.
Leader, L. J. (1991). Los Angeles and the Great Depression. New York: Garland.
Panunzio, C. M., Church, W. E., & Wasserman, L. (1939). Self-help coöperatives in Los Angeles. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
A year or so ago, I met Judith Gerber, who like me has a special interest in the history of agriculture in Los Angeles. Judi, in addition to being one of our UC Master Gardener Volunteers, is a farm and garden writer and author of the recently released book, "Farming in Torrance and the South Bay". Judi and I are working together to document the agricultural history of Los Angeles County, once the largest farm county in the US, and now the largest urban county. We've been calling our project "From Cows to Concrete" and we will both be blogging about it periodically. Here is our first piece, on the transformation of the City of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles: A History of Agricultural Abundance
By Rachel Surls and Judith Gerber
Some of the earliest observations about the place we now know as Los Angeles clearly envisioned the potential for abundant farms. Father Juan Crespi, a member of a party of Spanish explorers, wrote in 1769 about the valley where they had made camp, “After crossing the river we entered a large vineyard of wild grapes and an infinity of rosebushes in full bloom. All the soil is black and loamy, and is capable of producing every kind of grain and fruit which may be planted. We went west, continually over good land well covered with grass.”
This agricultural potential was realized as the area was settled several years later. In 1781, "El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles," was founded. Over the next several decades it grew into a small farming community, with both dry-land farming, and an irrigation system of ditches, or zanjas, that fed its wheat and maize.
By 1790, Los Angeles produced more grain than most other California settlements, and by 1800, the harvest exceeded the pueblo’s local needs. By that same year, fruit orchards and vineyards were planted on a large scale.
By the 1830s, there were over 100 acres of vineyard producing wine and brandy. The community became known for its grape production, and by 1851, about 1,000 gallons of wine were shipped from Los Angeles.
The Gold Rush and the transcontinental railroads increased the demand for beef and other farm products, and sparked an influx of population into Los Angeles, further increasing demand. Los Angeles farmers responded by experimenting with other crops.
A frontiersman and entrepreneur named William Wolfskill was the first to grow oranges commercially. The first commercial orange grove in the US was on a hill in what is now downtown Los Angeles, a forerunner of what was to become the massive Southern California citrus industry.
Many people came from other parts of the country to try their hand at farming, and produced a diversity of commodities ranging from hay and grain to citrus and olives. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce even created a large department dedicated to attracting and advising new farmers.
The opening of the Los Angeles aqueduct in 1913 allowed further intensification of farming to higher-value irrigated crops, especially in the San Fernando Valley as many of its communities became part of the city beginning in 1915.
After World War II, suburbs and industry grew, squeezing out much of the city’s agricultural land, but farming was prominent in communities surrounding the city up until the 1960’s. Community gardens and urban agriculture have continued in the city, and have recently become more visible and popular, catalyzing the recent passage of the ‘Food and Flowers Freedom Act” allowing small-scale commercial production of fruit and flowers in residential neighborhoods.
The city’s seal, created in 1905, contains oranges, grapes and olives, a reminder of our agricultural past, and a promise of future abundance. Our farm heritage has relevance today, as we work to create a Los Angeles with accessible, affordable, ample food for all its residents.
With more than 10 million residents, and a climate conducive to year-round growing, Los Angeles County is a gardener's paradise. Gardening has always been popular in Los Angeles but recently has become an even greater passion. This trend is evident nationally, with a 19% increase in Americans growing their own food, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Gardening Association. In the current economic situation, gardening is an important strategy to help families improve their food security. However, vegetable gardening can be intimidating for beginners, who need extra support.
With the help of our dedicated UC Master Gardener Volunteers and many community partners, UC Cooperative Extension has organized a new initiative to help Los Angeles County residents become successful vegetable gardeners. The Grow LA Victory Garden Initiative will offer a low-cost, four-session class, held at 10 locations around Los Angeles County, where new gardeners will learn the basics of successful vegetable gardening. These "Victory Garden Circles" will provide not only basic lessons, but also a way to stay in touch with fellow gardeners, ask questions, and share produce. Groups are gearing up to start in late March and early April. Participants who complete all four classes will become UC Certified Victory Gardeners. A google map shows the locations and contact information for each site. We hope to start ten more sites in the fall.
Why victory gardens? We've named the initiative for the World War II Victory Garden movement that inspired Americans to grow as much as 40% of the nation's fresh produce. (You can see one of the popular Victory Garden posters of the era, below.) Today, gardens will help us achieve victory over poverty, food insecurity, and lack of fresh, quality food.
A new blog will provide victory gardening tips and highlights from our Master Gardener Volunteers and their Victory Garden Circles around Los Angeles. We hope you will visit the Grow LA blog, and our Initiative web page. Get involved and help LA grow!
I’m enjoying “Sending Flowers to America: Stories of the Los Angeles Flower Market and the People who Built an American Floral Industry”, by Peggi Ridgway and Jan Works. It tells the story of flower production in the Los Angeles area and the genesis of what is now the “largest wholesale flower district in the United States”.
Residents of early Los Angeles found the climate of Los Angeles perfect for growing countless crops, including many kinds of flowers. According to the authors, “By 1890, the housewives of Southern California had firmly established themselves as the growers and sellers of cut flowers…these industrious women transformed their backyards into flower factories, harvesting calla lilies and other blooms for local florists and their homes” (p. 11).
Advances in refrigeration and transportation eventually transformed flower growing from backyard enterprise to big business. By the second decade of the 20th Century, Southern California flowers were routinely shipped to other states. The flower business grew throughout the 1920 and 30s. Communities around Los Angeles County were known for their flower production, including Montebello, which was known as “the City of Flowers” and the South Bay/Torrance area. Los Angeles County farmers grew many kinds of flowers, including daisies, chrysanthemums, asters, carnations, callas, and gladiola. Many new immigrants were involved in flower production, including Greek, Italian and Japanese newcomers to Southern California.
Japanese flower growers were especially influential, and they organized the Southern California Flower Market in 1913, in downtown Los Angeles’s wholesale district, relocating in 1923 to South Wall Street, where it continues to operate today. In 1924, another group, the American Florists’ Exchange, organized by European immigrants, opened the Los Angeles Flower Market across the street. Since then, the 700 block of South Wall Street has been the hub of the Los Angeles Flower Trade. See the Flower District’s website, at http://www.laflowerdistrict.com/index.asp for more information. The District markets are open to the public during certain hours.
Commercial flower production in Los Angeles County began to fade away in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as most growers moved out to Orange County communities like Buena Park and Garden Grove, as well as to San Diego. Most flower farms were gone from LA County’s landscape by the 1980’s. (There is still significant production of some specialty flowers in those counties, especially San Diego, but today much of the market’s flowers are imported).
It’s interesting that flower production in Los Angeles started as a backyard enterprise that allowed women to add to their household income. Hearkening back to these roots, backyard flower production in Los Angeles has recently received significant media attention. A local woman, Tara Kolla, was growing sweet peas, poppies, and other flowers to sell at a nearby farmers market. Her neighborhoods complained, and it turned out Kolla was violating an obscure zoning ordinance, passed in 1946, that allows residential production of vegetables for market, but not fruits, nuts or flowers. Kolla and other urban agriculture advocates have organized to change the zoning laws in Los Angeles to allow backyard production. Their proposed “Food and Flowers Freedom Act” is under consideration by the Los Angeles City Council.
For more information about Kolla’s efforts, read this recent Sunset Magazine article: http://freshdirt.sunset.com/2009/10/legalizing-urban-farming-in-la-the-food-flowers-freedom-act.html .
To learn more about the Food and Flowers Freedom Act, see http://urbanfarmingadvocates.org/?p=22 .
The highlight of my week was visiting Farm Advisor Andre Biscaro at our Antelope Valley office in Lancaster. I went with Andre to visit one of his field trials. He is testing numerous varieties of alfalfa to see what works best in the hot, windy high desert.
Alfalfa has historically been an important crop in Los Angeles County. A 1940 Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce publication referred to alfalfa as "Green Gold", because it was considered very profitable, and listed the Antelope Valley, along with the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys as important production areas.
Alfalfa was traditionally grown to feed cows at the hundreds of dairies that existed in Los Angeles County. Those dairies have closed or left over the years. In fact, Andre's variety trial is on the property of what I believe is LA County's last commercial dairy. Farmer Nick Van Dam provided Andre with the space for his alfalfa variety trial, on land that had previously been used to grow onions, another important crop in the Antelope Valley.
The dairies are gone for the most part, but alfalfa is still an important crop in LA County, although it's no longer grown commercially anywhere in the county other than the Antelope Valley. According to the most recent LA County Crop Report (2007), there were 5,804 acres of alfalfa hay grown, valued at over nine million dollars. This is an interesting contrast to the 1940 LA Chamber Report which stated that 46,000 acres were grown that year, valued at $287,500.