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Pocket farm could end up dying on the vine

A Culver City restaurateur is growing produce on a pastoral slice next to his cafe on National Boulevard. But officials say zoning prohibits raising crops for sale within city limits.

July 31, 2009|Martha Groves

Any day now, Culver City restaurateur Vincent Trevino could find himself awash in a crimson tide of tomatoes.

In April, Trevino persuaded the owner of a long-derelict former railroad spur next to his Bluebird Cafe on National Boulevard to let him put in 535 tomato plants and 40 fruit trees. A proponent of urban gardens, Trevino envisioned harvesting produce for the cafe and charging patrons to pick their own Early Girls and beefsteaks.

But even as the tomatoes begin to redden in earnest, Trevino's bucolic dream might be dying on the vine.

City officials have told Donald Barr, the developer who owns the strip of land, that zoning prohibits raising crops for sale within the city limits. Growing fruits and vegetables for personal use is fine, they say. Selling them is not.

Trevino, 45, and Barr, 76, thus have arrived at the uneasy junction of urban and rural. With edible gardens sprouting in yards and vacant lots in metropolitan areas throughout the country, Culver City officials are pondering the implications of a commercial pocket farm in the midst of factories and houses.

Even before First Lady Michelle Obama planted lettuce and snap peas on the White House lawn, the concepts of edible landscaping and the local sustainable foodshed movement were "really taking off in our state and in many places across the country," said California Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura, an Orange County grower.

As a result, cities across the nation are having to grapple with the concept of urban farming, often with no municipal codes to guide them.

Trevino and his business partner, Chris Marble, opened their yellow-and-blue cafe four years ago on an eclectic stretch of National across from where the Expo Line light rail line will eventually pass. Their modestly priced paninis, salads, wraps and burgers -- not to mention delectable red velvet cupcakes -- became a hit with area residents and workers.

To help ensure a supply of fresh produce, Trevino and Marble have farmed several acres in Fallbrook in northern San Diego County. Last year, the land produced about 10,000 pounds of tomatoes, along with citrus, figs, avocados, agave and grapes, Trevino said. But commuting to that operation and transporting the produce has proved expensive and time-consuming. When Barr agreed to let them plant on about half an acre of his right-of-way, they seized the opportunity.

The way Trevino sees it, urban sprawl has made it increasingly difficult for shoppers to procure truly locally grown, fresh foods. Even at the ubiquitous farmers markets in the Los Angeles area, many producers truck in their fruits and vegetables.

Creating pocket farms in urban neighborhoods, he said, could provide food and help cultivate agricultural literacy among city folk, who may never have seen tomatoes ripening on the vine or figs dangling from a tree.

Barr said he considered Culver City's zoning code to be vague. After all, the area is a hodgepodge. His former Pacific Electric Railway spur is zoned for transportation uses, such as parking, which is in short supply in the area. To the west are houses and duplexes. To the east is the Hayden Tract, an industrial zone developed in the 1940s by Sam Hayden, a transplanted glass manufacturer from the East. In addition to makers of beauty products and pottery, it houses design and architectural firms, advertising offices, Internet and media companies and the private Willows Community School.

Barr said residential neighbors have welcomed his pastoral slice, which has brought crops back to ground that decades ago grew lima beans, corn and barley. They're relieved that the once-neglected property now harbors tomatoes and figs rather than bottles and trash.

They also look forward to reaping some of the bounty, since Barr has promised a bag of tomatoes to each household on Schaefer Street, which adjoins the former right-of-way.

Micheal O'Leary, a Culver City councilman who lives on Schaefer, said he met with Barr one recent afternoon after a neighbor asked him to check out the pocket farm. O'Leary was complimentary if not effusive. But he cautioned that any commercial operation would have to seek proper approvals.

In addition to zoning issues, city officials say they have concerns about possible toxins in the soil. Railroad spurs "typically have soil contaminants from railroad ties -- arsenic, tar, petroleum, copper, lead and other metals," Sol Blumenfeld, director of community development, said in an e-mail.

The Culver City city attorney's office, which only recently learned about the upstart farm, is evaluating the situation.

Trevino said he was cheered by the recent visit of Mark Scott, the new city manager, who appeared to embrace the notion of city farming.

"We've entered into a new kind of urban world, and maybe some of the codes on farming are a little outmoded," Scott said.

Trevino, who figures he could double production next year thanks to the lessons learned over the last few months, isn't ready to surrender. What if Barr gave him the tomatoes, and Trevino sold them from the cafe?

"There's no way they can stop me from selling a bag of tomatoes from Bluebird," he said.

Ultimately, Trevino said, the city should figure out a way to make urban farms work for grower and municipality. "Imagine how many pieces of property could become pocket farms," he said.

"But," he added, "first they have to get through the bureaucracy of cities."

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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