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Growers Return to L.A. County

A report finds the region, reversing years of urbanization, added nearly 3,600 acres of farmland, mainly for specialty vegetables.

June 15, 2004|Daryl Kelley and Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writers

After decades in which cropland in Los Angeles County was used mostly to grow housing subdivisions, a new state report shows that farming is making a surprising comeback, driven, in part, by increased growing of specialty crops.

The increased farming of baby carrots, organic onions, potatoes and parsnips in the Antelope Valley near Lancaster was the most unexpected news in a new report on changes in Southern California land use, state officials said Monday.

"It's heartening and interesting to see this uptick in Los Angeles County," said Darryl Young, director of the State Department of Conservation. "It's encouraging that high-value specialty crops are being grown close to their market."

Ben Faber, a farm advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in Ventura, said that over the long-term, specialty farmers will continue to have a place in Southern California.

"If you are in Riverside, if you are in San Bernardino, if you are in Antelope Valley or Ventura County, you are in the right place at the right time as a farmer.... You're close enough to the consumer to deliver fresh produce 12 months a year," he said.

"L.A. has a huge mouth and a huge belly, and we are always looking for something new."

From 2000 to the end of 2002, Los Angeles County added nearly 3,600 acres of prime cropland and produced the county's highest level of farming activity since the state land-use mapping began in 1984, the report said. Before the postwar population boom, the county was the largest producer of farm crops in the United States.

The new report on five counties in Southern California is one in a series set for release this year as part of the state Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program, which documents land use on about 46 million acres of public and private land every two years.

The Inland Empire, the state's fastest-growing region for more than a decade, continued its breakneck conversion of agricultural and vacant land to urban uses, according to the study.

Riverside and San Bernardino counties, which have changed more than any other area in California since 1990, converted 20,000 acres of land to urban uses from 2000-02 as Southern California continued to fuel the state's population growth, the state reported.

"The Inland Empire ... is seeing growth pressure that has been unprecedented based on the demand for housing," Young said.

But if the trends in the Inland Empire were predictable, Los Angeles County's small shift back to farming was not, state officials said.

"This was a surprise," said Molly A. Penberth, manager of the mapping program. "This is apparently a singular situation."

She said Los Angeles County's irrigated cropland increased by 3,600 acres to 34,281 by the end of 2002, the highest total since 41,000 acres were in production two decades ago.

Farming in the Antelope Valley dropped sharply in the early 1980s, she said, because ground-water levels fell, making it too expensive to raise crops.

But now the farmers are coming back.

"Everything's a function of the crop," she said. "Specialty crop value is higher, so growers invest more."

Bakersfield farmer Bob Grimm helped create that trend by leasing fallow fields around Lancaster in recent years to grow about 2,500 acres of carrots, including the Bunny Luv miniatures now popular as snacks.

Grimm, who farms more than 3,500 acres in the Antelope Valley, said the region provides a 30-degree difference in temperature between daytime and nighttime that carrots need to keep from drying up in the summer.

"It's kind of a unique situation," Grimm said. "It's a higher elevation, so it doesn't get as hot as Kern County. Farmers are just trying to find a niche so they can survive."

On one of Grimm's Lancaster farms Monday, manager David Rizzo said his competitors were also moving into the Antelope Valley. "More potato growers from Bakersfield are coming up here," he said.

Small farmers in the Inland Empire are also switching to carrots and other specialty crops to make a living.

In Riverside County, long an agricultural powerhouse, there has been surprising growth in certain niche farm products, especially in the Coachella Valley, said Steve Pastor, executive director of the Riverside Farm Bureau.

"Baby carrots are very popular and Oriental vegetables are very popular on a smaller scale, too," he said.

But that sort of agriculture is often only a holding action as growth sweeps toward the farms.

Transformation of Riverside and San Bernardino counties from an agricultural region to a sprawling megalopolis is emblematic of the overall change in California since World War II.

Together, those two counties accounted for nearly 22% of all farm and vacant land converted to urban uses during the 1990s, with Riverside County alone accounting for 14%. And the story was the same for 2000-02, except San Bernardino County surpassed Riverside County in urbanization.

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