Even as urban sprawl continues its march across the few remaining swaths of farmland in Los Angeles County, a leafy burst of carrots in the high desert is pushing back.
Last year, the county added more than 3,300 acres of farmland--the biggest jump since officials started keeping score in 1984. The increase is due to people like Philip Giba, a weathered Antelope Valley farmer with a taste for Marlboro Reds.
Giba has been coaxing vegetables from the sandy loam of Lancaster for 17 years. He was always an onion guy--until the carrot crowd came knocking.
Now, he has tripled the size of his farm to 2,500 acres. Under contract with several Kern County produce companies, he devotes two-thirds of his land to carrots and credits the crunchy crop with keeping him solvent.
"I'm bringing on 300 new acres a year," Giba said. "Carrots have kept me in business."
The veggie revival came as a surprise to the people who track such things. For decades, urban development in Los Angeles County has swallowed land once used for farming and grazing.
During the building boom of the late 1980s, for example, the county lost more than 5,000 acres of farmland in a two-year span. At the same time, urban uses claimed almost 13,000 new acres, according to state data.
But a new report by the California Department of Conservation suggests that the urbanization of farmland is slowing here, thanks to a mini-agricultural boom taking root in the Antelope Valley.
"It's not something we expected," said Molly Penberth, manager of the state's farmland mapping program. "Farming had sort of slacked off up there [in the Antelope Valley]. It's been more of a place where urbanization is occurring."
The lure of affordable homes has made the Antelope Valley the fastest-growing area in the county, according to the 2000 census. The population has mushroomed from 40,000 to 331,000 over the last 20 years.
Even as cities such as Palmdale and Acton swell, farmers have begun to irrigate outlying land that has long been fallow. The loose, sandy soil is an ideal home for root crops such as carrots and potatoes. And the valley offers a ready supply of ground water for those willing to pump it hundreds of feet to the surface.
But what's really driving the carrot craze, farmers say, is the wild popularity of packaged "baby" carrots, those tiny peeled stubs that have become the darlings of vegetable platters far and wide. The miniatures--sculpted from larger carrots--hit the market about a decade ago.
"I hardly bought carrots before because I didn't feel like cutting and peeling them," admitted Gary Mork, a county agriculture inspector based in the Antelope Valley. "But now I buy them in those little packages."
Carrot kings such as Grimmway Farms and Wm. Bolthouse Farms, both of Bakersfield, grow their products year-round to keep up with the demand for everything from crinkle-cut carrots to carrot juice.
And during the summer months, when other parts of the state get too hot and humid for carrot comfort, the Antelope Valley has proven to be a profitable alternative. The weather usually hovers between 80 and 90 degrees, a prime temperature for the crop.
The boom has been dramatic. Five years ago, carrots and other root crops were a $6.4-million industry in Los Angeles County. Last year, they generated $28 million, according to county crop reports.
Root crops--the majority of them carrots--are now the county's third most profitable crop, after ornamental shrubs and bedding plants.
For traditional onion farmers like Giba, the carrot crusade not only helps fatten the bottom line, it also provides a rotation crop to use between other harvests.
"Most people don't realize how big farming has to be to be cost-effective," Giba said. Growing carrots "has made us more efficient because we're able to use the ground more. When there were just onions here, we'd use a field twice and then leave it."
Both Grimmway and Bolthouse now pay Giba, owner of Philip Giba Farms, to grow carrots. On a single August day in the middle of the harvest, Giba's fields will yield more than 30 million carrots.
Giant harvesting machines, their knobby tires tall as a man, chew their way across half-mile rows. They yank the carrots from the earth, cut off their leafy tops, and spit them into semitrailers in a seamless orange blur of conveyor belts.
But old habits die hard on this wind-swept desert plain, and Giba remains loyal to the onion, even as his business grows ever oranger.
"Farming's farming," he shrugged when asked about the change. A minute later, he peeled back another layer.
"Did you see 'Rush Hour 2'?" he asked. Turns out there's a scene in a Chinese restaurant with a bag of onions in the background.
"That was one of my onion bags," Giba said proudly. "I must have gotten 10 calls the day that movie came out."