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.
Not so long ago, as recently as the 1950’s, Los Angeles County was the number one agricultural county in the United States. While urban sprawl has long since consumed much of the county’s farmland, many Angelenos are surprised to learn that we still have significant commercial agriculture in Los Angeles County. We tend to think of our county of 10 million-plus residents in urban terms, but in fact, a large population can co-exist with significant agricultural production, as recent US Department of Agriculture (USDA) census data makes clear.
The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service conducts a nation-wide agricultural census every five years, and results of the 2007 census recently became available. I was interested to see the comparisons between the 2002 and 2007 reports for Los Angeles County. The number of farms has actually increased 12% from 1,543 farms in 2002 to 1,734 farms in 2007. Farms became a bit smaller, declining 13% from an average 72 acres to an average 63 acres. What constitutes a farm? According to the USDA, “for the purpose of the Census of Agriculture, a farm is any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year. The $1,000 value is not adjusted for inflation”.
Where do we stand in terms of California agricultural production? Los Angeles County is ranked 28th out of the 57 California counties in terms of the gross value of agricultural products, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) California Agricultural Resource Directory for 2008-2009. The CDFA directory lists LA County’s top five crops as:
- Ornamental trees and shrubs
- Bedding plants
- Root vegetables
- Orchard fruit
- Hay, alfalfa
And, we are the #4 onion producer in California, the #5 nectarine producer and the #5 raspberry producer among California counties. The raspberries surprised me!
Both data sources are attached if you’d like to learn more.
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.
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!