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Five Green Acres : A Pair of Agrarian Holdouts Try to Keep the Valley's Rural Roots Alive

August 06, 1996|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After years of struggling against suburban onslaught, the quintessential city farmer and a feisty pony ride impresario have teamed up to turn an empty lot in Chatsworth--next door to a church, not far from half a dozen strip malls--into a farm and petting zoo.

Longtime San Fernando Valley agrarian Joe Cicero and well-known pony ride provider Linda Menary--who last year lost the lease on their popular pumpkin patch, vegetable stand and petting zoo at Pierce College--hope together they can nurture the Valley's farming roots.

The venture is underway on Winnetka Avenue, just south of Parthenia Street, where they have leased five acres that, if not exactly farmland, at least isn't covered with blacktop.

City planners and politicians have "forgotten about the farmers and are just looking for development," Cicero said. "We don't fit into the bureaucracy."

"We call ourselves the outlaws," Menary said with a chuckle.

Having already moved in some of Menary's animals and Cicero's tractors and other farm implements, the two plan to operate the sort of tribute to agrarianism that drew 20,000 schoolchildren a year, along with food shoppers, to the working farm at Pierce.

The corn is already planted, Cicero said. So are the pumpkins. The idea is to preserve a bit of the agriculture the Valley grew up on, and to give city kids a taste of farm country.

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A way of life has been lost, the two say, as Los Angeles has become one of the world's biggest high-tech urban centers.

Cicero and Menary are fixtures in the Valley's almost vanished farming and ranching tradition. Cicero's family has tilled the Valley floor for more than 40 years, and Menary has been showing skittish youngsters how to milk goats since the 1960s. And both of them have been involved in celebrated controversies while fighting to keep their operations afloat in recent years.

In 1990, Christmas tree magnate Stu Miller, who had a stand across from Cicero's leased farmland at Pierce College, filed a lawsuit contending that Cicero enjoyed an unfair business advantage because other tree merchants had not been given a chance to bid on the publicly owned land.

Valley residents who grew up visiting the Cicero family's pumpkin patches and going on their winter hayrides rallied to his support in a Christmastime cause celebre.

After a lengthy legal battle, Cicero prevailed in 1992.

But in 1995, the Los Angeles Community College District--an agency with which Cicero was repeatedly at odds--ousted him from his 25 leased acres, and no amount of public support could bring him back.

While Cicero was fighting college administrators and Christmas tree vendors, Menary was doing battle--often in court--with opponents such as city zoning officials and an animal rights advocate, who accused her of mistreating horses. She was arrested on that accusation, but the charges were dropped.

She does face four misdemeanor counts, however, of violating city zoning laws. Officials say her Reseda pony ride, where she charged school groups to pet Clydesdales and chase chickens, is in an area not zoned for business. Menary notes, in her defense, that she's been at the site for more than 30 years. Her trial begins later this month.

She says she and Cicero have applied for zoning and other city permits for the new operation. Slated to open Sept. 10, it will offer hay rides, a vegetable stand, a petting zoo, sheep-shearing demonstrations and Christmas trees, among other things.

As urban sprawl spreads and schoolchildren study computers, the two hope a hutch of rabbits, a burro and a tall patch of sweet corn will provide a different perspective and experience.

Cicero said a woman came up to him on Monday while he was working at the site and told him: "My son loves tractors and he loves dirt."

"Where are those for a kid?" he said. "What do you see? Cement and the Warner Center."

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