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Mooove 'Em Out : Southeast L.A. County Once Had Hundreds of Dairies, But Today Only 3 Survive


SOUTHEAST AREA — John Vanderham's dairy has been around since 1939, long before the open fields and pastures were invaded by houses, businesses and light industry.

The children walking to school, workers filing into industrial buildings and hundreds of cars motoring down the boulevard in front of the once-remote dairy are a constant reminder of change.

"Pretty soon, you won't even see another cow around here," said Vanderham, who is up at 1:30 a.m. pasteurizing and bottling milk. "You'll only see a cow in a movie."

Los Angeles County in the 1950s was home to hundreds of dairy farms and produced more milk and other dairy products than any other county in the nation, according to the U.S. Census, which counts livestock as well as people.

But explosive urban growth has rendered area dairymen an endangered species in 1992.

Vanderham and his cows were in the area first, but now the city folk are making the rules. Santa Fe Springs officials are threatening to take Vanderham to court if he does not move his corrals back from the sidewalk and build a fence to shield his 300 cows from view.

Vanderham contends they are trying to drive his Norwalk Dairy out of town.

"The bottom line is they want it developed," Vanderham said.

But city officials say they are only trying to enforce modern zoning regulations, which took effect in the 1980s. They had not moved to enforce those regulations until recently.

"All areas have to be screened so the people in the industrial area across the street don't look and see the mess out front," said Fernando Tarin, Santa Fe Springs' director of housing and community preservation.

Things have certainly changed since Los Angeles County was the dairy capital of the United States.

Today, just four commercial dairies remain in the 4,083-square-mile county. They are all family-run operations: Norwalk Dairy, Paul's Dairy in Long Beach, Valley View Farms in La Mirada and High Desert Dairy, which is in a remote area of Lancaster.

A fifth dairy on the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho, a county jail near Castaic, provides milk only for inmates.

The longtime owners of the three urban operations fear their days of dairy farming are numbered.

Zoning changes could force Valley View Farms out of business after 1998. A changing of the guard, from father to son, threatens Paul's Dairy because the younger generation just can't see getting up at 3 a.m. every day to tend to the herd.

"The writing is on the wall," said Paul Lussman, 62, co-owner of Paul's Dairy. "I don't like to see it go."

Vanderham and Lussman are the children of Dutch and Swiss immigrants who started dairies in the county near the millions of milk drinkers in Los Angeles. The climate, ideal for milk cows, increased milk production.

The 991 dairy farms in L.A. County in 1954 had 104,914 milk cows, according to the agricultural census. Wisconsin's Marathon County was next with 89,301 milk cows.

The Southeast area of the county, what is now Artesia, Bellflower, Cerritos and Paramount, was the heart of the county's dairy industry. The corrals of the commercial dairies covered the land like a brown patchwork.

Then the housing market exploded, fueled by World War II veterans who could buy homes with government-backed loans.

The city began closing in on the farms. By 1959, the census shows that the number of milk cows in the county dropped to 89,609, then to 39,958 in 1969, 13,153 in 1978, and 4,428 in 1987. The remaining dairies have about 4,000 cows among them.

The escalating price of land was one of the reasons dairymen moved away. They could make a tidy profit and avoid rising property taxes by selling their land to developers.

"They made out very well financially," said Barry A. Rabbitt, who became one of the first non-dairymen to sit on the Cerritos City Council when he was elected in 1970.

Some of the dairy farmers bought larger spreads in less-populated areas where land was cheap, such as San Bernardino or Tulare counties.

"They all just scattered, and some of them just quit," said Cor Van Dam, owner of Valley View Farms.

But Van Dam and the owners of the other two urban dairies say they like their farms too much to give up or move elsewhere.

Valley View Farms is the largest of the urban dairies, with a herd of 1,000 cows. La Mirada ends where Van Dam's property begins. Hay bales are stacked two stories high and pigeons alight on the backs of cows. About 600 calves are born each year.

Van Dam, the son of an El Monte dairy farmer, founded Valley View Farms in 1952. He still lives in the house where he raised his children, and his son, Cornel, 39, tends to day-to-day operations.

"We were dairy farmers as far back as any can remember," said Van Dam, 74.

Vanderham took over Norwalk Dairy from his parents. His wife, Tanya, tends the herd, which is on 10 acres along the Santa Fe Springs-Norwalk border.

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