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Farmers' Tenuous Grip on Land Slips as Building Thrives

January 26, 1986|JUAN ARANCIBIA | Times Staff Writer

The Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, nearly 70 acres of free enterprise billed as the world's largest indoor mall, is one of the most important business centers in the South Bay.

But before the retail giant started going up in the mid-1960s, the site was used for another industry that was once just as important to the South Bay.

It was a bean field.

Indeed, agriculture was the predominant industry in the South Bay during the first half of this century, with farms and ranches sprawling over thousands of acres. They produced a cornucopia of vegetables, but the main crops were beans, strawberries and peas.

Today, however, nearly all South Bay farms have been replaced by houses, shopping centers, factories and other developments as landowners have found more lucrative uses for their property. Only a little more than 300 acres remain devoted to farming, agriculture officials say, and that figure is expected to decrease.

All to Be Gone Soon

"In 10 or 15 years there won't be any farms left" in the South Bay, said Ron Allen, an inspector for the Los Angeles County Agriculture Department whose territory includes most of the area.

"I don't even want to think about it," said Tom Ishibashi, referring to the future of the farm he has worked for 35 years on Torrance Airport property. In that period, the land available to him for farming has shrunk from 200 to 80 acres, the rest covered by homes, restaurants and other developments. Agriculture officials say he is the only commercial strawberry grower remaining in the South Bay.

But he is not the only farmer facing extinction.

"I'm slowly being phased out," said Roy Pursche, 60, whose farm near Playa del Rey has been reduced from 350 acres in 1946 to less than 100. Pursche leases the land from the Summa Corp., which is planning a multimillion-dollar office complex nearby. He expects the company to develop his land eventually.

Mas Ishibashi, a cousin of Tom Ishibashi, who farms next to Marineland on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, said his vegetable and flower business has been reduced to no more than 20 acres from the 500 he plowed before World War II. He expects that Marineland, his neighbor and landlord, will eventually seek a more profitable use for the land.

Too Late to Change

Most South Bay farmers say it is too late to reverse the trend against them.

"Something should have been done in the '50s, before development started," Pursche said. He said a greenbelt set aside for farming could have been put in place during the early waves of urbanization and would have enhanced the area.

"We're boxed in the city," said Ed Blas, co-owner of T&T Farm in Carson. His 150-acre vegetable farm is surrounded by housing and industry.

"It's actually a matter of time before all our land will be filled with residential and commercial space," Blas said. "We have no security about the future."

His family company owns more than half of the land it farms. Eventually, he said, a developer will make an offer that is too good to refuse, especially in light of the unsteady return on farming.

Tax Advantage

Unless farm land is sold, the owner--if it is the same person or company who owned it before the passage of Proposition 13--does not have to worry about high tax rates based on neighboring development. Proposition 13, approved by voters in 1978, rolled back property valuations to 1975 levels; if there has been no change in the way land is used or if it has not been sold, the tax is based on that valuation plus an annual 2% assessment increases. When land is sold, however, it is reassessed on the basis of its sale price and "highest and best use," said Leonard Wheeler, director of evaluations for the Los Angeles County assessor's office.

In determining the best use, an assessor looks at the land's zoning and potential for rezoning, how surrounding land is used and environmental and other restrictions on development, Wheeler said.

He said farmers often work a piece of property until it reaches what they consider peak resale value and then sell it.

Agriculture has diminished so much in the South Bay that many residents are not aware of the farms that remain.

"A lot of people don't believe that I farm in this area," said Tom Ishibashi. When he tells people that the produce from his stand on Crenshaw Boulevard in Torrance is locally grown, "they look at me and ask, ' Where did you grow it?' "

Downward Trend

Statistics from the county agricultural commissioner's office illustrate the trend. In 1940, about 316,000 acres of Los Angeles County was being farmed. Fifteen years later, the total acreage was down to about 205,000 acres. By 1984, the figure had dwindled to less than 40,000 acres.

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