Growing Pains: Why Is L.A. So Hard on Urban Farmers?

The city of Los Angeles is an ideal place to stage an urban farming revolution—if the government ever chooses to dig in.

For two months last fall, Occupy L.A. protesters slowly killed the lawn outside Los Angeles City Hall. When police finally swept them from their encampment in November, they left behind 1.7 acres of trampled landscape littered with tents, street art, books, and instant coffee canisters. They also left an opportunity for more constructive local activism—fill the newly-freed public space with drought-tolerant edible plants, City Hall’s very own urban farm.

The park is set to reopen in June—with a fresh carpet of sod lining the south lawn once occupied by the Occupy camp. The city decided to replant the space in partnership with Scotts Miracle-Gro. And though the north side of the building will be landscaped with some drought-tolerant plants, restoring such a large swatch of grass back to City Hall marks a symbolic return to the status quo.

The city of Los Angeles is an ideal place to stage an urban farming revolution—if the government chooses to dig in. L.A. is temperate year-round. It’s got lawns for miles. If the city devoted 9 percent of its urban land to crops—we’re capable of growing everything from beans to lettuce to melons to squash here—its residents could essentially survive on our own produce. In 2010, only 6,000 acres of land in L.A. county were devoted to growing food, with less than 100 of those farmed organically. Nursery products like ornamental trees and ground cover plants currently account for more than half of the county’s agriculture. In one assessment of 50 large U.S. cities’ support of local food, L.A. ranked 43rd.

It wasn’t always this bad. Seventy years ago, agriculture dominated the Southland. In 1950, L.A. County dedicated 97,000 acres to growing produce, tens of thousands of acres more than what we’d need to be self-sufficient today. At one point, the county hosted 58,000 acres of citrus groves alone, a crop valued at over $40 million—nearly $500 million in today’s dollars. Back when urban ag was big business, L.A. even passed ordinances restricting backyard gardeners from selling their own fruits and flowers to compete with the cash crop.

But L.A.’s harvest numbers have since plummeted. Orange groves made way for Craftsman homes in Pasadena. Wheat fields were paved over with wide Valley boulevards. The post-war boom hit, and the rush of high-paying jobs in aerospace and manufacturing funded block after block of idyllic suburban housing. By 2008, the county’s citrus space had dropped to 1,075 acres worth just over $14 million, and the value of L.A. real estate had skyrocketed.

Meanwhile, the families moving into those high-priced Craftsman bungalows were starting to crave more locally-grown foods on their dinner plates, and visits to the farmers market became a weekly must for many Angelenos. To meet growing demand for that fare, Tara Kolla started her own backyard flower farm in a residential corner of Los Angeles in 2003. But Kolla soon found that those outdated gardening restrictions were still on the books. For the next seven years, her Silver Lake Farms battled a series of government busts—she was busted for teaching gardening in her backyard, busted for composting restaurant scraps, even busted for selling flowers—until the city freed up some of its residential farming restrictions and legitimized her operation in 2010.

Kolla’s experience turned her into an accidental activist. Now, she’s been joined by a coalition of farmers, businesses, and researchers that’s organizing to push the city’s agricultural policy further into the 21st century—and into the upper ranks of American cities with progressive urban agriculture agendas. “We all want to grow food and we want it to be easy,” says Francesca De la Rosa, co-chair of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council’s working group to advocate for urban agriculture policy in the city. That would mean limiting bureaucratic hurdles, clarifying the rules, and extending some base-level incentives to urban agriculturalists—from overhauling the city’s free compost and mulch giveaway programs to extending the reduced water-usage rate that big agriculture enjoys for smaller edible landscaping and gardening projects.

The city could also help out by freeing urban farmers to supplement their edible produce with more lucrative prepared products—land and water in L.A. don’t come cheap. A bill proposed last February would make it legal for California residents to sell edibles such as jams, pickles, and pies made out of their home kitchens, sidestepping the overhead of a commercial kitchen. Beekeeping and small farm animals are also still restricted in residential zones.

Activists are also encouraging L.A. to find farming opportunities in its own backyard—the city’s underused public parks, city-owned vacant lands, schools, hospital grounds, green spaces between the sidewalk and the street—even its prison yards. To push the issue, L.A.-based edible landscaping outfit Farmscape has launched a stunt campaign to elect the company mayor under a platform to “bring farms back to the city.”

As a company, Farmscape designs, builds, and maintains container gardens for private clients, restaurants, and schools. As mayor, it would take the same approach to the city’s public spaces. “We would transform many of the city-owned spaces—City Hall, Griffith Park, the police station—into urban edible paradises,” said Rachel Bailin, Farmscape’s marketing media manager. Yes, Farmscape is a private business championing its own public political platform, but even its self-serving mission helps highlight one of the major impediments to urban farming's spread in L.A. As Bailin sees it, community organizing in urban agriculture can never compete with the economic sway a multinational corporation has in dictating agricultural policy.

Los Angeles still has a long way to go to reach the 69,000 acres of crops necessary to turn into a self-sustained urban farming mecca. But the government can take real steps to amp up its farm acreage—and make sure existing farmers stick around. Silver Lake Farms has since expanded to growing greens alongside its flowers. Kolla recently took on a new lot inside the city, and she has her eyes on yet another. But even with the bureaucracy off her back, maintaining her city roots doesn’t always make good business sense. “As a small-scale farmer, the next logical step for me would be to move out of the city,” she says. Even after a decade, she’s still wondering: “Can urban farming really work?”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user quinnanya

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