Before people moved to Los Angeles for jobs in tech or entertainment, they were coming for agricultural ones. LA was a farming powerhouse for four decades, and the industry is the subject of a new book called From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles, out on Angel City Press. (Fun fact: many of the images used in the book come from the extensive photo collection of our own LA Public Library.)
In an interview with the University of California, the book's co-author, Rachel Surls, drops some knowledge about the ways citrus and grapes shaped LA's past, and how some current trends like backyard beekeeping are actually an LA tradition. We've rounded up some of the best tidbits from the interview here:
—Los Angeles "was once the largest, most bountiful agricultural county in the U.S. (for four decades, between 1909-1949)."
—Los Angeles was California's first wine country in the 1800s, "well before Napa and Sonoma became famous for their vineyards."
—Even before Los Angeles was the LA we know today, it "was founded as a food production system." The Spanish designed LA (then El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles) as a "food hub" for all of Alta California, and before the Spanish came, indigenous people "harvested abundant wild crops" here.
—Beekeeping, currently enjoying a renaissance and recently made legal for residential areas in LA, was all the rage back in the late 1800s, after the area's cattle industry tanked. "People who understood the value of bees – including John Muir – advocated for beekeeping. There were bee ranches sprinkled throughout the foothills of Los Angeles County; it became a mecca for beekeepers."
—Most people are probably aware that citrus (especially lemons) were a booming crop for the LA area, but a little bit of everything was grown here at one point: vegetables like cauliflower, celery, and tomatoes, berries, and even flowers.
—"One of the important trends of the early 20th century was to create neighborhoods where homes sat on 1-3 acres of land," so that people could create what were called "small farm homes."
—Boosters had a big hand in promoting LA's quaint farm image. At the time, home farming was promoted by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the LA Times, and became especially popular after the LA Aqueduct was built. There was even an annual contest for best small farm home.
—In the 1930s, a Franklin Delano Roosevelt program called the Subsistence Homestead Program saw the creation of little farm communities in Reseda and El Monte. "You can drive around the El Monte neighborhood and see the vestiges of the small farm homes there."
—LA lost its massive agricultural focus slowly, but the end of World War II kicked that process into high gear. People moved in droves to the LA area for defense industry jobs, and those people "wanted suburbs and stores and schools for their children, and roads and freeways," so agricultural land began to get gobbled up.
—LA's agricultural ties haven't entirely disappeared. In addition to the ongoing urban agriculture revival seen in community and school gardens, there is still a lot of farming that goes on in the nearby Antelope Valley. "The bag of "baby carrots" you buy at the store (which are actually regular-sized carrots cut to "baby" proportions) may have been grown in L.A. County’s Antelope Valley."
- 'From Cows to Concrete': New book provides history of ag in Los Angeles County [University of California]
- LA County Gets Rolling on Turning Ugly Vacant Lots Into Useful Urban Farms [Curbed LA]