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Meanwhile, Back at Ranch Long Beach

An Urban Farmer Gets Up With the Chickens

May 11, 2003|ANDREW ASCH

It's 7 a.m. at the ranch and Betty Gregory is feeding her flock of sheep, fighting the unending battle against the mess in the chicken pen and checking the fences for break-ins by varmints or wild dogs.

This routine would be nothing special in Wyoming or even Lancaster. But Gregory built and runs the only working ranch in Long Beach, once home to acres of dairy farms. Her spread borders a sludgy segment of the Los Angeles River, an MTA railway track and a thicket of imposing electrical towers. But she's not exactly an urban pioneer.

"I don't live out here," says Gregory, a 36-year-old customer service representative who lives in San Pedro, where she grew up, but spends her free hours at the ranch. As a child she fantasized about running a ranch while learning to care for animals at 4-H clubs, a nationwide 100-year-old organization whose local branches organize community projects in neighborhoods from Compton to Rancho Palos Verdes. Volunteering as a 4-H leader in adulthood did nothing to quell her gnawing bucolic dreams even while she studied for an associate's degree in business administration at Los Angeles Harbor College. By 1999, she wanted to give her 4-H kids a place to learn about animals, but there were no ranches in Southwest L.A. County. When she heard Southern California Edison had a three-acre plot for lease in Long Beach, she jumped. The synchronicity augured well. It was once the location of a stable where Gregory had kept a horse. The land had become a wilderness, overrun by 6-foot daisies and poisonous castor bean trees.

Gregory leased the plot by partnering with 4-H, which in California is part of the University of California Cooperative Extension. The first year's rent came from 4-H clubs in the South Bay; the club gives advice and training, but future fund-raising and administration are up to Gregory.

That first year, she cleared the land with the help of friends, 4-H club members and a team of day laborers. She used savings and subsidies from barbecue fund-raisers to buy purebred livestock--50 sheep, 30 chickens, 15 rabbits, eight ducks, two horses and a donkey. She gets a lot of advice from 4-H and veterinarians, and she's had a lot of good luck. Aside from wild dogs attacking some chickens, things are going well. A turkey raised on the ranch took best in show at the Los Angeles County Fair in 2002. More than 15 families comprising 27 youths and 18 adults work at the ranch regularly. Produce is given to 4-H members who work there.

Gregory hopes to get the ranch operating in the black through grants and donations, and perhaps to build ranches elsewhere in urban L.A. County--and don't tell her it can't be done. "I'm very stubborn. Once I start something, I don't stop. Even when everyone else thinks I should quit."

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