UC collaboration helps position LA urban agriculture for growth

Sep 5, 2013

Until the early 1950s, Los Angeles was an agricultural powerhouse as the top farm county in the nation for decades, producing a wide array of fruits and vegetables as well as milk and other farm products. The University of California maintained a large Cooperative Extension office in Los Angeles County to work with local farmers. In the following years, as land was developed, farming declined precipitously. Today, one UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor works with Los Angeles County commercial farmers, who are mostly located in the rural high desert around Lancaster.

More than half a century after its decline, agriculture has again become high profile in Los Angeles County, although the focus has shifted from rural to urban. Urban agriculture has gained momentum in the county, as it has in many metropolitan centers throughout the United States, with a growing number of small-scale city farmers, along with enthusiastic backyard beekeepers and poultry raisers. However, despite the apparent popularity of urban agriculture, a clear picture of its status in the county did not exist until very recently.

A new UCLA student report, “Cultivate LA,” was released on Aug. 15 and offered the first comprehensive picture of the local urban agriculture landscape. The report provides an important foundation for UC Cooperative Extension and other groups involved in developing policy and educational resources for urban farmers.

According to Rachel Surls, UC Cooperative Extension sustainable food systems advisor in Los Angeles County and the “client” of the student project, the report has generated tremendous interest. The students verified a total of 1,261 urban agriculture sites using a variety of data sources, and confirming sites with telephone calls and Google Earth. They looked closely at issues such as complex zoning codes that impact urban farming and the distribution of its products. As one of their final products, the students created a website (www.cultivatelosangeles.org) that contains an interactive map and a chart of agriculture zoning codes in each of the county’s 88 cities and its unincorporated areas.

Surls became involved in urban agriculture policy beginning in 2011, through her participation in the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Due to the lack of information at that time, the task of crafting policy was a challenge. So, when UCLA faculty members offered to have urban planning graduate students produce a comprehensive report on urban agriculture in Los Angeles County, guided by her input, Surls embraced the opportunity. With Carol Goldstein, lecturer in urban planning, and Stephanie Pincetl, professor and director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Surls helped the students develop their research questions and directed them towards important sources of data.

Surls points out a few relevant findings that will guide her work in further developing UC Cooperative Extension’s program in sustainable food systems.

School gardens are the most common form of urban agriculture. In Los Angeles County, there are more than 700 verified sites. The report suggests that more resources and training are needed to ensure that gardens are successful and integrated into the school curriculum. Surls plans to update resources for school gardens in the next few months.

Urban farmers face major challenges. They find it hard to compete with rural farmers. Their small growing spaces make it difficult for them to produce fruits and vegetables that are competitively priced with those produced on large rural farms.

“Also, urban farmers have to learn from the ground up, said Surls, who plans on creating an online database of resources and best practices for urban farmers. "Often, they don’t know where to start and don’t realize they are entering a very complex business.” 

Despite some challenges, urban farmers can enjoy advantages. Some have access to free or low-cost land if they operate within a public agency or nonprofit setting. Surls is currently developing resources that will help urban farmers test their soil and identify and mitigate problems, such as lead contamination. She also hopes to partner with nonprofit agencies to evaluate vacant lands for their suitability for farming.

Surls is currently leading a project that is assessing the needs of urban agriculture throughout the state. She is excited to see how the results of the UCLA student report will dovetail with the results of the statewide assessment.

“What’s happening in Los Angeles is mirrored in cities around California, said Surls. "The public is enthusiastic about urban farming, and municipalities are struggling to find models that work in California’s urban communities. Both of these projects can help planners and citizens make common-sense decisions and help current and future urban farmers become successful.

To learn more about the UCLA student project, visit http://cultivatelosangeles.org. For more information on UC Cooperative Extension’s sustainable food systems program, please visit http://celosangeles.ucanr.edu.

By Dohee Kim, (626) 586-1974, deekim@ucanr.edu
Author - Director of Media Outreach and Advocacy Liaison