With the gubernatorial elections in California just weeks away, I have been thinking more about what I'd like to hear from the candidates. Hunger is a big problem here in Los Angeles County. I'd like to see our state doing more to address hunger and access to healthy food. For example, why does California have such low rates of food stamp participation? I haven't yet heard the candidates discuss hunger or food access.
In doing some research on Depression-era agriculture in Los Angeles, I was excited to learn about another contender for the job of California governor, 1934 candidate Upton Sinclair. He would probably have a lot to say to 2010 candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman on fighting poverty and hunger.
A well-known novelist, Sinclair made his home in the Los Angeles area beginning in 1916. His novel, “The Jungle”, published in 1906, exposed the unsafe and unsanitary conditions of the meatpacking industry, sparking a national outcry which led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Sinclair was an opinionated and prolific author of books and tracts on numerous topics. He was also a dedicated Socialist, who nonetheless decided to run for governor of California as a democrat. In other times, he and his campaign might not have gotten much traction, but the Depression and its devastating effects earned him a wide audience. His plan for a transformed California, EPIC (for “End Poverty in California") was inspiring to the unemployed and became a phenomenon in 1933 and 1934. The EPIC campaign was headquartered in Los Angeles, and encouraged supporters to form EPIC clubs at the local level. Soon, almost 1,000 such clubs had formed throughout the state (Starr, 1996).
A cornerstone of EPIC was a plan to use idle land to create farming colonies, where the unemployed would be put to work growing food to feed the hungry. Sinclair envisioned communal colonies, where excess farm products would be bartered for other goods. Idle factories would also be put to use employing those out of work. Cash would be less important in Sinclair’s vision, as barter and exchange of goods would become the focus of the economy. Sinclair also proposed that small farmers would pay their taxes in the form of agricultural products, rather than cash.
To Sinclair, it made sense that unused land would be put to use for the greater good. He wrote about the use of vacant land, “In Germany, every square foot of such land was planted with vegetables and small fruits. Why could not we in California have garden plots where there were now burned out patches of weeds?" (Sinclair, 1994, p. 17). In Sinclair’s vision, no one would go hungry. His EPIC Plan would primarily be financed by taxing corporations and utilities.
Sinclair and EPIC were surprisingly successful. He won the democratic primary and registered thousands of voters. However, Southern California businesses mobilized against him, as they found his vision of agricultural and economic reform threatening. The publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Harry Chandler, and the President of Los Angeles-based Sunkist, Charles Collins Teague (also President of the California State Chamber of Commerce) were just two major players in a campaign to discredit Sinclair. Through newspaper articles, advertisements, and newsreels, Sinclair was painted as a communist and his plans as dangerous (Sackman, 2005).
One typically over-the-top anti-Sinclair advertisement said of EPIC that “if it is successful, it will destroy California’s business structure, bankrupt our families, overthrow our organized labor, confiscate our homes, wreck our industries, and rob our employed workers of their employment".
Sinclair was also blamed by his powerful detractors for a trend that was beginning to rise to the top of the political agenda in California: Dustbowl migrants entering the state looking for work. According to his critics, Sinclair’s EPIC plan, with its assurances of food and employment for all, was responsible for the influx of thousands of impoverished families from Oklahoma and other states. (The reasons for that migration are complex, and had little to do with Sinclair or EPIC, and much to do with New Deal agricultural policies, desperation, and the perceived availability of jobs in California). Ultimately, while Sinclair lost to conservative republican Frank F. Merriam, he still received 879,537 votes, or 38% of the vote, and more than 20 candidates running on an EPIC platform made it to the State Assembly (Starr, 1996).
While the specifics of Sinclair's plan might not be practical today, what struck me most about his EPIC Plan was the idea that food and access to it should be a major focus of state government. We all need to eat. And today, as in Sinclair's era, California is a state of amazing agricultural abundance. Why should anyone go hungry here? Can't we and shouldn't we do more?
Jerry and Meg, let's hear what you have to say about hunger and food access.
Sackman, D. C. (2005). Orange empire : California and the fruits of Eden. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sinclair, U. (1994). I, candidate for governor : and how I got licked. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Starr, K. (1996). Endangered dreams : the Great Depression in California. New York: Oxford University 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.
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.