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Posts Tagged: Rachel Surls

New book traces Los Angeles’ transformation from cows to concrete

From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles
After thousands of years as a sparsely populated coastal plain, the Los Angeles Basin underwent two dramatic transformations in the last century and a half, first into an agricultural powerhouse and then into mile upon mile of wall-to-wall American dream homes, shopping centers, freeways, businesses and schools.

“We now have food deserts over what was once abundant farmland,” said Rachel Surls, UC Cooperative Extension sustainable food systems advisor. “Although Los Angeles is not unique in this regard, there's something disconcerting about the speed and scale at which Los Angeles lost its ability to produce food.”

The dramatic conversions of Los Angeles are traced and explained in a new book by Surls and Los Angeles farm and garden authority and UC Master Gardener volunteer Judith Gerber. From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles, published by Angel City Press, is available on the publisher's website and from other booksellers.

Though hard to imagine when trapped in a traffic jam on the Santa Ana Freeway, under the pavement, parking lots and buildings are acres of once-productive farmland. Los Angeles County, with more than 10 million residents, now houses a quarter of California's population. But in the first half of the 20th century, Los Angeles was the top farm county in the United States.

In her role with UCCE, Surls works to encourage the newly active school, home, community and urban agricultural community in Los Angeles. She was intrigued to discover that the county now best known for Hollywood, high-rises, and luxurious homes, as well as grinding poverty and homelessness, was once a bucolic farming community. The knowledge sparked research that resulted in her seven-year collaboration with Gerber on the book.

Rachel Surls
LA's transition began when Spanish invaders came to the shore of Southern California to claim the fertile land for Spain. The Native Americans who were hunting, gathering and managing the countryside were folded, often against their will, into missions bent on civilizing the local tribes. Native Americans served as the mission's workforce. Farming at the early missions was successful.

Spanish land grants spawned vast ranchos in colonial Los Angeles that ran thousands of cattle and grew rice, corn, beans, melons and other fruit and vegetables. When Mexico won its independence from Spain, the missions' power declined and the rancheros gained influence. Many communities in Southern California bear the early ranchos' names, such as San Pedro, La Puente and Los Cerritos.

A series of developments led to Los Angeles County's designation as the No. 1 ag country in the nation by 1909. Among them were:

Judith Gerber

  • Successful grape production that was started by the missions to make sacramental wine.
  • A casual experiment by a grape farmer to plant orange trees, which exploded into a citrus growing empire.
  • The arrival of the Southern Pacific railroad expanded the market for LA's perishable produce.
  • The LA Chamber of Commerce led a transition of farming into an organized, sophisticated industry.
  • The discovery of local oil provided affordable fuel to expand production of canned fruits and vegetables, and made irrigation with groundwater possible for more farmers.

Growth of marketing cooperatives, ag research by UC Cooperative Extension, and irrigation and market infrastructure would allow Los Angeles to hold its position as the nation's top farm county for four decades. Los Angeles led the nation in production of walnuts, lemons, strawberries, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, corn and hay. 

An aerial view of orange groves near Covina during World War II.
There was a tremendous focus on food production during World War II, but when the war ended, a flood of Americans, including many GIs with low-interest home loans, moved into the region for jobs in burgeoning industries. Between 1940 and 1960, Los Angeles completed its transition from cow-county to sprawling metropolis.

But agriculture has not disappeared, say the authors of From Cows to Concrete. There are small pockets of agricultural land in the urban landscape, such as Richland Farms in Compton, where many people have large lots and keep horses and livestock. The new farm-to-fork movement is prompting families to cultivate vegetables in their backyards and community groups to find vacant space to produce food. LA allows residents to keep honey bees and some residents are raising backyard chickens.

“In a place where poverty is entrenched, with fruits and vegetables neither affordable nor accessible, why not use backyards, vacant lots, and other open spaces to grow healthy food, right in the neighborhoods that need them,” the authors ask. “The story of agriculture in California and Los Angeles is still unfolding.”

Posted on Friday, May 13, 2016 at 11:04 AM
Tags: Rachel Surls (7)

Urban farms can help feed the hungry

(The Sacramento Bee published an op-ed by Rachel Surls, UC ANR urban agriculture advisor for Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County, in its editorial pages today. The op-ed is reprinted below.)

A potential solution to hunger and food insecurity is growing vegetables in backyards and vacant lots, says Rachel Surls, UC ANR urban agriculture advisor.
Urban agriculture is in the local spotlight as the Sacramento City Council is expected to vote Tuesday night on allowing farming on city lots and making it easier for residents to sell produce they have grown.

In similar discussions around the state on the desire of residents to raise their own food with fewer restrictions, there is a core issue that should be front and center. In California, where we grow half of the country's fruits and vegetables, our own citizens too often go hungry.

Fifteen percent of households – roughly 5.5 million Californians – are “food insecure,” according to a 2013 federal report, meaning they do not have “consistent access throughout the year to adequate food for healthy active living.” Families with children are even more likely to run short on food.

We know that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is key to a healthy diet, but not everyone has ready access to a grocery store, or can afford to buy fresh produce. One potential solution is to make it easier to grow food in backyards and on vacant land.

The University of California's Global Food Initiative aims to help the world sustainably and nutritiously feed itself. One way that UC Agriculture and Natural Resources is working toward that goal is by providing information for urban farmers and decision-makers interested in urban agriculture to improve food security in their communities. While hunger and food security are complex issues, urban farming can be used with other strategies to help ensure access to affordable, nutritious food.

And the idea seems to resonate with Californians. Interest in urban food production can be seen around California. Following strong advocacy efforts at the grassroots level, Assembly Bill 551 was passed in 2013, allowing local governments to designate urban agriculture incentive zones. San Francisco has enacted the state's first one.

Several other cities have developed local policies to promote urban agriculture. San Diego, for example, has made it easier for residents to keep chickens and bees in their backyards, and to establish farmers markets, produce stands, community gardens and small urban farms. Oakland updated its city code in 2014 to allow community gardens in most of the city without a special permit.

But obstacles to urban agriculture remain in many cities, including land use restrictions, difficulty accessing water, soil contamination and a lack of information on local regulations. After conducting a statewide study, my colleagues and I found a number of common challenges and came up with six steps that local officials can take to break down common barriers.

They are: Make zoning and regulatory information accessible; develop a transparent process for using city-owned land; create an urban agriculture incentive zone; update zoning to make it urban-ag-friendly; make water accessible while promoting efficient use; and provide guidance and support for soil testing and remediation.

An easy way to let urban farmers know what is allowed is to post information on a website, as San Francisco has done. Through AB 551, cities can entice property owners to lease their land for gardens and farms in exchange for reduced property taxes. Cities can also partner with urban farmers and local food policy councils to identify concerns and ways to address them.

In addition to health benefits, urban gardens beautify the community and provide common ground for people of different ages and cultures to work together. They can also create jobs, learning opportunities and economic savings on food. Given the numerous potential benefits, local officials can better serve their communities by making it easier to cultivate food locally.

Posted on Tuesday, March 24, 2015 at 8:57 AM

UC helps urban farmers cultivate crops

The City of Los Angeles has about 8,000 vacant lots, which potentially could be used for urban agriculture.
There is plenty of vacant land that could potentially be farmed in urban Los Angeles County, but there are hoops to jump before a hoe can rake through the earth, reported Rick Paulas in a Q&A article with UC Cooperative Extension advisor Rachel Surls, published on the KCET Food Rant blog.

"Sometimes, I think there's local elected officials who feel the highest use of that land is to build businesses that will create jobs," Surls said. "And although urban agriculture can sometimes create jobs, it has other community benefits that perhaps aren't entirely valued, like offering healthy food, beautifying the neighborhood. Oftentimes, neighborhoods get a Burger King on a piece of vacant land rather than a community garden."

Surls said beginning urban farmers at first need basic horticultural information - what to grow, when to plant, how to irrigate and how to manage pests. As they gain experience, they often encounter challenges there weren't aware of at first, such as regulatory or zoning issues.

"And if they stick around long enough," Surls said, "they get to a phase where they need more sophisticated production information, more marketing and business-oriented information, and advice on things like labor. How can I legally use volunteers? What are California labor laws? Just a lot of information that commercial farmers have been dealing with for a long time."

To help farmers at each of these stages, Surls developed a website for urban farmers that aggregates information and resources needed to start a new farm, work with city and county officials, and market their produce.

Posted on Wednesday, November 19, 2014 at 1:05 PM
Tags: Rachel Surls (7)

Roof-top gardens on LA skyscrapers connect people with food

UC Cooperative Extension's Rachel Surls said consumer preferences are driving the growth of urban agriculture.
Galvanized horse troughs arranged on the top of a Los Angeles skyscraper have become a productive high-rise herb and vegetable garden, providing ultra-fresh produce to an on-site restaurant, reported Robert Holguin on KABC TV.

"Chefs are using what's produced (in the garden) in their kitchens because they know their customers appreciate fresh, local food," said Rachel Surls, the sustainable food systems advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County.

Surls was part of a recent tour of urban agriculture in downtown Los Angeles, a story that was also covered by the LA Times.

The visitors — who included growers, urban policymakers, consultants, entrepreneurs and representatives of nonprofits — wandered around the vegetable beds and asked questions as they got a taste of the garden. The article said the garden, on the fifth floor of a building at 6th and Figueroa streets, cost about $40,000 to build and yields as much as $150,000 worth of produce every year.

Other news:

Drought clouds future of California wine industry
W. Blake Gray, Wine-searcher-com

The California drought didn't impact the wine industry in 2014, but a dry forecast for next year has growers worried. One major issue is the buildup of salts in soils, said Mark Battany, UC Cooperative farm advisor in San Luis Obispo County. During a wet winter, these salts are washed away. But California hasn't had a wet winter in three years. Farmers were able to irrigate at the beginning of the drought to make up the difference, but increasingly water supplies are restricted.

Battany says that excess salt buildup in the soil can cause grapevines to lose their leaves. "Without a way to process sunlight, you won't see sugar ripening," he said.

Showdown looms as California eyes pesticides
Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press

Organic farmers are challenging a proposed California pest-management program they say enshrines a pesticide-heavy approach for decades to come, including compulsory spraying of organic crops at the state's discretion.

The farmers are concerned about the California Department of Food and Agriculture's pest-management plan, the article says. The 500-page document lays out its planned responses to the next wave of fruit flies, weevils, beetles, fungus or blight that threatens crops. Many groups challenging the plan complained that it seems to authorize state agriculture officials to launch pesticide treatments without first carrying out the currently standard separate environmental-impact review.

The article reported that the California organic agriculture industry grew by 54 percent between 2009 and 2012. California leads the nation in organic sales, according to statistics tracked by UC Cooperative Extension specialist Karen Klonsky, who says the state is responsible for roughly one-third of a national organic industry.

Posted on Thursday, November 13, 2014 at 9:49 AM

Will work for food

The Los Angeles Times today ran a compelling photo in its blog "Framework," which shares intriguing news images of the past, showing men collecting vegetables in payment for labor during the Great Depression. For information on such cooperatives, Framework directed readers to a blog post written by the director of UC Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County, Rachel Surls, in June 2010.

Surls reported that many farmers were unable to harvest produce because they couldn’t afford labor, and enormous quantities of food were left in the fields as people went hungry. One response of Los Angeles County residents was to organize into “self-help cooperatives." Self-help cooperatives were based on bartering labor for goods, for example, harvesting farmer’s crops for a share of the harvest.

Cooperatives helped unemployed people who preferred to work rather than accept public assistance. (Photo: Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)
Cooperatives helped unemployed people who preferred to work rather than accept public assistance. (Photo: Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

Posted on Friday, October 7, 2011 at 8:51 AM
Tags: history (3), Rachel Surls (7), unemployment (2)

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