Urban Agriculture
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Urban Agriculture

UC Food and Agriculture Blogs

Local Historian Delves into South Bay Agricultural History

One of our talented Master Gardeners, Judi Gerber, is also a historian who has recently published the book Farming in Torrance and the South Bay from the Arcadia Press “Images of America” Series.  

The book is loaded with photos of Torrance and surrounding communities from the days, not so long ago, when LA County’s South Bay was home to major agriculture, including flower farms, hay and bean production, dairies and much more. Judi shares great information: for example, I never knew that Gardena was once known as the “Berry Capital of Southern California” and that Lomita once billed itself as the “Celery Capital of the World”. 
 
An image Judi shares in the book is that of flower stalls all along Pacific Coast Highway, selling the snapdragons, carnations and marigolds produced in the flower fields of Redondo and Hermosa Beach during the first half of the 20th Century. Contrast this early, pastoral Pacific Coast Highway with today’s strip-mall lined, traffic-jammed PCH. It is a vivid example of how much Los Angeles has changed in a few short decades.
 
I asked Judi how she became interested in local agricultural history. She was born in the South Bay, grew up in Torrance, and remembers visiting a local dairy as a child. As an adult, she became involved with the Torrance Farmer’s Market, and saw a need to let people know about the remaining local farming community and how to preserve it. Along with a busy career in public administration, she began a study of local farming history. Older residents of the area were very helpful, offering stories and photos, eager to share this part of their past. 
 
As her history project evolved, she somehow managed to squeeze in volunteer work with our Master Gardener Program. As a UC Master Gardener, she leads a gardening program for senior citizens at Bartlett Senior Center in Torrance. 
 
She also blogs as “LA Farm Girl” at http://www.lafarmgirl.blogspot.com/ and has published a variety of articles about farming in California. “My goal is to get people to support small farmers and become more aware of city farming”, said Judi. “California still produces more than half of our nation’s fruits and vegetables. As urban dwellers we often forget that. It’s a story that needs to be told.”
Posted on Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 3:05 PM

Master Gardeners Help Los Angeles County Residents Grow their own Food

Cooperative Extension has a wonderful resource that I’d like people to be more aware of: our amazing Master Gardener Volunteers.  We have more than 200 MG volunteers, as we call them. 

The Master Gardener Program officially began in 1978.  We maintained the program on and off over the years, depending on staffing and interest.  By the early 1990s, however, our program in Los Angeles County was inactive.  That is, until Yvonne Savio, coordinator extraordinaire joined our staff in 1995 and immediately restarted the program.  It’s been going strong ever since. 

Master Gardeners participate in extensive training then volunteer with us in a variety of ways, mostly focused on improving food access in low-income communities.  Last year our Master Gardeners reached more than 87,000 people in Los Angeles County, working with community gardens, school gardens and answering calls on our Master Gardener Helpline. 

The Helpline is a free service for Los Angeles County residents.  Anyone can call or email the Helpline with their home gardening questions.  The Master Gardener Helpline is available by phone at (323) 260-3238 or email at mglosangeleshelpline@ucdavis.edu. 

Yvonne and the Master Gardeners have been featured in the media twice in the past week.  The Los Angeles Times ran a story on Victory Gardens on January 10th, and included a mention of how our Master Gardeners have helped to promote food gardening around Los Angeles. The Times article discussed how interest in gardening is cyclical, and that when economic times are difficult, more people garden.  For example, the article mentions that a major seed company experienced a 40% increase in its sale of vegetable and herb seeds in 2007.   You can view the story at www.latimes.com/features/home/la-hm-victory10-2009jan10,0,7167635.story

Our Master Gardener program was also featured on Evan Kleiman’s “Good Food” Show on KCRW on January 10th.  You can listen to the interview with Yvonne at www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/gf/gf090110australian_olive_oil

Learn more about our Los Angeles County Master Gardener Program at this link:  celosangeles.ucdavis.edu/Common_Ground_Garden_Program/

Posted on Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 12:04 PM

Los Angeles and the "Orange Empire"

I’ve heard many people, including my parents, talk about having received an orange every year in their Christmas stocking.   Apparently, this custom dates back many years. I remember reading a Laura Ingalls Wilder book as a child in which Laura was thrilled to receive an orange for Christmas. It was a special treat, at a time when oranges were rare and expensive.

During my holiday break, I read an interesting book called “Orange Empire: California and the fruits of Eden”, by Douglas Cazaux Sackman, that tells the story of how oranges went from being a once a year treat to something common and inexpensive.    Los Angeles was once the center of the “Orange Empire”. 
 
Oranges were brought by the Spanish as they settled the missions, and the first grove in Southern California was planted at the Mission San Gabriel, here in Los Angeles County, in 1804.   They were grown on a very limited scale until a frontiersman and entrepreneur named William Wolfskill decided to try growing oranges commercially. He obtained permission to farm on a hill in what is now downtown Los Angeles, and began planting oranges and lemons with seeds from the Mission.   By the time the Gold Rush began in 1849, he was able to ship his citrus crop north to miners who were willing to pay a premium to avoid scurvy, up to $1 per orange. Wolfskill’s Los Angeles orchard was never more than 70 acres. 
 
The citrus industry in Southern California really took off in the 1870’s due to two innovations. First, a family in Riverside County obtained two trees of a citrus variety from Brazil.   The fruit from these trees was larger, sweeter, and easier to peel . This variety, which came to be known as the Washington navel orange, created a surge of interest in growing citrus. In the same decade, the transcontinental railroad system was completed, and William Wolfskill shipped the very first railcar load of oranges east in 1877.   In the 1880s, with the advent of refrigerated shipping, the growing citrus industry got another boost.   Many growers quickly entered the citrus production business, and towns along the rail lines in Los Angeles County were founded as part of the burgeoning citrus industry, including Pasadena. 
 
“Centered on the Los Angeles basin, a vast citrus landscape was coming into being” said Sackman (p.42). “In 1870, only 30,000 orange trees were growing in the state. Twenty years later, 1.1 million trees were producing fruit”.   By 1893, local citrus growers had organized themselves into the California Fruit Growers Exchange, later known as Sunkist. Sunkist was instrumental in driving the demand for oranges, promoting oranges and orange juice as health aids, with national advertising campaigns beginning in 1907.   Sunkist advertisements, along with colorful orange crate labels, helped to brand Los Angeles and Southern California as a new Eden, the land of sunshine and good health. This image helped to drive migration from other parts of the US to the Los Angeles region, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s.  
 
The Los Angeles “Orange Empire” began to decline after World War II, as acres of citrus were rapidly sacrificed to the growing, sprawling suburbs of the Los Angeles basin.   As recently as 1970, there were still more than 50,000 acres of citrus in the county; but today, most orange trees in Los Angeles are in backyards rather than groves. 
 
As a parent of two teens, I know that today, an orange in a Christmas stocking might not be appreciated. But to pluck one off a tree, on a 75 degree day in January, still makes Los Angeles seem like Eden to a former Midwesterner like me.
Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 at 4:57 PM

Los Angeles Agriculture

Originally from the Midwest, I have been a Los Angeles County resident for 20 years, working at UC Cooperative Extension for much of that time.  First, I helped start school and community gardens. Later, I became county director for the LA County Cooperative Extension office. With both jobs, I’ve had the opportunity to observe various facets of agriculture in Los Angeles, from small gardens to large commercial enterprises.   It’s fascinating to me that, while Los Angeles County has a population of more than 10 million people, agriculture remains highly relevant.  Many people may not be aware that LA County still has commercial farming, mostly in the high desert area near Lancaster and Palmdale.  The “baby” carrots you buy at the grocery store may have been grown here.  LA County growers also produce potatoes, peaches, onions, alfalfa and more. 

In fact, as recently as 1950, Los Angeles County was the number one agricultural county in the nation. Although our current level of commercial production is much smaller, we still have a large nursery and landscaping industry, along with a population that is very much interested in food and its production.  Because of our great climate, we’ve always had many residents who garden, with a recent surge of enthusiasm for home and community gardening, farmers markets, and even backyard beekeeping and poultry production. There is also renewed interest in canning and food preservation. These trends have been sparked by recent books, such as the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, the Slow Food movement and current economic conditions. 

People are looking for information on these topics.  After some Internet searching, they may end up at our Cooperative Extension web site, celosangeles.ucdavis.edu/ , and send me an email.  I’ve been getting such interesting questions in my inbox: Can I raise cows in my backyard?;  How do I start a vineyard?;  Can I still use this can of soup that's been on my shelf since 1960?; and, Why are there so few honeybees in my backyard lately? I don't always know the answer to these questions (although I’m pretty sure you should NOT eat the soup), but through the University of California, we do have access to experts on a wide variety of topics. Right here in our Cooperative Extension office in Los Angeles we have world-class experts, and on our campuses, we have access to many more.  It's satisfying when I can connect someone with helpful information. 

I created this blog to accomplish several things.  First, I'll find and share answers to some of the questions that come my way that are of broad interest to Los Angeles County residents.  Second, I'll share stories about agriculture in Los Angeles County.  I’m a history buff, so some of these stories will be historical in nature.  I’m a firm believer that understanding our past can help us to plan for and make a better Los Angeles for the future.  Third, I'll seek out and write about some of the interesting agricultural activities going on around Los Angeles County today.  I define agriculture in the broadest way, and will include observations and information on everything from home gardens to our nursery and landscape industry to larger-scale commercial farming.  Finally, I will suggest resources for those interested in various aspects of agriculture in Los Angeles County, including those available through UC Cooperative Extension. 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted on Sunday, December 28, 2008 at 4:51 PM

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