Once the Largest Farming County in US, Los Angeles’s Agricultural Roots Laid Bare in New Book

Book cover image for "From Cows to Concrete: How Farming Transformed Los Angeles County" © 2016 by Rachel Surls and Judith Gerber, published by Angel City Press. All rights reserved. Image used with permission.

Book cover image for “From Cows to Concrete: How Farming Transformed Los Angeles County” © 2016 by Rachel Surls and Judith Gerber, published by Angel City Press. All rights reserved. Image used with permission.

Only a bird’s eye view truly reveals the extent of Los Angeles’s urban sprawl; a city crossed by ribbons of highways supporting unending streams of cars, where even its river is mostly encased in concrete. It’s hard to imagine that this was once a fertile place of such abundance that its name conjured up images of vineyards, orange groves and orchards; in which neighborhoods were better known for their celery than their celebrities. A timely new book, From Cows to Concrete: the Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles, by Rachel Surls and Judith Gerber explores Los Angeles’s past as the agricultural center of North America, tracing its precipitous path as it developed into a concrete metropolis. It’s a cautionary tale that also offers hope for the future in the form of the burgeoning urban farm movement and a renewed interest in community and backyard gardening.

Seedstock recently spoke to co-author, Rachel Surls, Sustainable Food Systems Advisor at the University of California where her job includes overseeing a volunteer program of 300 trained master gardeners who teach local communities sustainable gardening.

She also leads a statewide project to provide resources and training for urban farmers, as well as working closely with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.

Seedstock: What inspired you and Judith to write this book?

Rachel Surls: About fifteen years ago I was reviewing some old farming statistics for Los Angeles and it just struck me that this used to be a really big farming center. I dug a little further and found that, in fact, it was the largest farming county in the United States for about forty years in the 20th century. So it was a huge farming center that faded away and became a large urban center in a fairly short period of time. I became fascinated with that history. My co-author, Judi Gerber, grew up in the Los Angeles area and saw the small farms slowly disappear. We both had the same goal of sharing this largely forgotten history with Angelenos today.

Seedstock: How did Los Angeles develop into an agricultural center?

Rachel Surls: From its earliest existence Los Angeles was an agricultural center because the pueblo of Los Angeles was established to grow food to shore up the Spanish colonization of Southern California. Los Angeles’s main economy was producing cattle and it wasn’t until those giant cattle ranches collapsed in the 1860s that you really saw the rise of what we think of as farming today. The amazing diversity of crops came about because after the end of the rancho era, people were looking for ways to make a living. They started experimenting with everything from beekeeping to growing fruits and vegetables and over time some really successful crops arose.

Seedstock: How long did it take Los Angeles to go from pastoral setting to urban sprawl?

Rachel Surls: That happened starting in the 1860s, after the railroad arrived in Los Angeles and many more people started to come here. You saw subsequent land booms where people bought up land and developed it. Where you really saw the pastoral nature of Los Angeles convert to urban sprawl was after World War II. That was when the value of property went up tremendously. It was now worth far more for development than it was for farmland and you saw the conversion of thousands of acres of farmland into subdivisions.

Seedstock: What else was grown here?

Rachel Surls: There were so many crops here it was amazing. The Venice area, for example, was known as the celery capital of the world. Wheat was a huge crop and there were many orchard crops; peaches, apples, cherries, and almonds. The most iconic crops were citrus. Oranges in particular became part of the whole mythology of Los Angeles – a place with sunshine and beautiful orange fruit on every tree is part of what brought people to Los Angeles. There was animal agriculture too. Beekeeping was huge, there were poultry ranches and hundreds of dairies.

Seedstock: What brought about the demise of agriculture?

Rachel Surls: After World War II so many people came here and they wanted nice suburban homes with schools, shopping districts and freeways. Land prices started going up tremendously and farmers simply got edged out because the taxes skyrocketed to the point that they could no longer afford their property taxes. As farms started to fold, the infrastructure started to fold as well. Farmers were unable to sustain their operations and ultimately had to sell their land.

Seedstock: Could you talk about the current state of urban agriculture in Los Angeles?

Rachel Surls: We still have plenty of traditional agriculture in Los Angeles. In the Antelope Valley area there’s large scale carrot, onion, and alfalfa production, as well as peach and cherry orchards and nursery crop production. We also have emerging urban agriculture in the form of school gardens and community gardens. People are also converting vacant lots into mini farms and selling some of the fruits and vegetables that they grow. We’ve been seeing more of this since about 2008, when we had the big economic crisis. People have found that it’s satisfying to grow your own food and it’s also fulfilling a need in some urban neighborhoods where there’s simply not enough healthy, affordable fresh produce.

(Note: Rachel Surls will be participating in the upcoming Grow Local OC Conference on November 10-11, 2016 at Cal State Fullerton. To hear her speak about urban agriculture,  and strengthening local food systems in southern California, click here: http://growlocaloc.eventbrite.com)

Seedstock: What does the future look like for urban agriculture in Los Angeles?

Rachel Surls: We have policies that are helping to promote the growth of urban agriculture. The Urban Agriculture Incentives Zone Act (AB551) was passed in the state legislature a couple of years ago. Local communities have to put their own programs into place and Los Angeles County recently did that and the City of Los Angeles is moving in that direction. This will give private land owners a property tax reduction to offer their land for use as urban agriculture. There’s also new state laws that make it easier to legally sell what you grow in an urban agriculture setting. I think, though, the real wild card is water. How will water be priced? How will it be accessible? Can urban farmers successfully convert to using less water? I think that’s the big question.

Seedstock: Obviously LA can’t return to its former pastoral glory, but to what extent can the green come back?

Rachel Surls: I think a lot of the hope comes from individuals. In the last five to ten years there’s been a renaissance of Americans gardening, doing home gardening, community gardening, container gardening. I think that through activities like these we have opportunity to bring very small pieces of land back into production.

Seedstock: To what extent is the story of Los Angeles a cautionary tale?

Rachel Surls: I think it’s very much a cautionary tale, especially for California. Los Angeles County paved over its farmland on a very fast, precipitous scale, but other counties in California have mostly continued on this same trajectory. In the U.S. we’re losing nearly 40 acres of farmland every hour and in California we’re losing around 50 thousand acres per year. If we don’t protect our farmlands we lose our capacity to grow food and farm products, and we erode other benefits that farms provide communities, such as mitigation of climate change.

Seedstock: What are you hoping people will take away from your book?

Rachel Surls: The most stunning thing about all this is how we now have food deserts sitting on top of what was once bountiful farmland. We have people going hungry in a place that not long ago was producing an amazing array of fruits and vegetables and other crops. Even if we can’t put a lot of land back into farmland because it may not be practical anymore, it’s not necessary for us to let people go hungry in this country. We have the resources to fix that problem and we need to do that.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. From Cows to Concrete: the Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles is available from Angel City Press and Amazon.

This article originally appeared on seedstock.com: http://seedstock.com/2016/08/30/once-the-largest-farming-county-in-us-los-angeless-agricultural-roots-laid-bare-in-new-book/

Urban Aquaponic Farmer and Chef Orange County Adam Navidi

4 OC Farms Using Innovation to Meet Market Demand and Increase Food Access

Urban Aquaponic Farmer and Chef Orange County Adam Navidi

Photo courtesy of Future Foods Farms.

Orange County, California, named for abundant orange groves long since paved over to make way for residential and commercial development (and Disneyland), is striving to reconnect with with its agricultural roots. New farmers and entrepreneurs are emerging to take advantage of growing demand for local and hyper-local produce and help communities overcome food access challenges.

However, as a result of high land prices that make it prohibitively expensive to purchase acreage necessary to operate a traditional field farming endeavor, these pioneering farmers utilize innovative growing systems that enable production of high volumes of produce on a small footprint. Aquaponics, hydroponics and solar energy are just some of the cutting-edge tools that these urban farmers are employing to grow and supply fresh, local food to area residents and retailers in the county.

Below is a sampling of four innovative urban farms growing food locally to benefit the community and economy of Orange County.  

Future Foods Farms–Brea

Chef and farmer Adam Navidi has transformed 25 acres in Brea into Future Foods Farms, a forward-thinking urban farming dynamo. The farm uses aquaponics to raise tilapia and grow a wide array of produce including lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, vegetables, peppers and flowers.


The combination of hydroponics with aquaculture that forms an aquaponic system serves to create a more optimized and sustainable food production system by solving for problems that occur in the individual systems. With hydroponics, a grower often must rely upon commercial fertilizers in order to enrich the water, while in aquaculture the fish farmer must constantly monitor the toxicity levels of the water that results from fish effluents (waste).

In aquaponics, the fish effluent in the water provides an organic nutrient source, or natural fertilizer, for the plants being grown in the system. The plants in turn consume the natural fertilizer and in the process filter and purify the water, which is subsequently recirculated back to the fish.

Chef Navidi’s aquaponically grown produce can be found at his Yorba Linda restaurant, Oceans & Earth, as well as at numerous farmers’ markets across Orange County. It’s also distributed through the Future Foods Farms CSA and served at events that Navidi caters.

Not content to keep his farming innovations to himself, Navidi is passionate about teaching others about the value of innovative urban agriculture. Through its menu and website, Oceans & Earth patrons learn about the food they eat. Additionally, Future Foods Farms offers internships to students from California State University, Fullerton.

Control Air Community Farm–Anaheim

On a small patch of land nestled in between a busy street, an elementary school, and a row of houses sits a quiet farm that is making big waves in Orange County sustainability. It’s the Control Air Community Farm in Anaheim, a project of Renewable Farms. It is an aquaponics farm, a farming system that combines elements of aquaculture and hydroponics and it just might be the future of sustainable agriculture.

Inside the farm one finds rows of arugula, basil, and other crops in raised plant beds connected to tanks of tilapia. The farm, which was built on asphalt, consists of 10 4,000-gallon tanks and 50 80-square-foot plant beds. It also uses minimal water to operate, and produces over 2,000 pounds of food for underserved residents.

Aaron has big plans for the future of the Control Air Community Farm. He hopes that it becomes more than just a farm, but also a gathering spot for the neighborhood. He welcomes visitors and kids from the neighborhood to come over to just hang out. Families often stop by to have a picnic, too. He even hopes to build a half-pipe so kids can come over and have somewhere to skate.

Urban Produce–Irvine

At Urban Produce in Irvine, hydroponic vertical growing systems supply nourishment to crops inside a controlled-environment greenhouse. The company’s patented growing system stacks produce vertically, in a closed automated environment. Produce in the system rotates in the greenhouse providing it with uniform light and air distribution. As a result of this automation, plants receive a precisely calibrated amount of nutrients and water that boosts efficiency and reduces costs.

Urban Produce’s hydroponic system requires 90 percent less water than a conventional farm. Much of the water required for the system comes from a dehumidifier system that draws water from the air to nourish the plants. In this repetitive closed-loop system, the plants release water back into the air, which is again recaptured by the dehumidifier system.

Urban Produce is a USDA certified organic grower that produces wheatgrass and a variety of microgreens including broccoli, kale, amaranth, wasabi, bok choy, radish and sunflower seeds. The company sells primarily to local customers, and as a result its produce remains fresher longer and shipping costs are greatly reduced. 

Alegría Fresh–Irvine

Alegría Fresh, which currently operates out of the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, utilizes hydroponics to grow everything from herbs and leafy greens to peppers, zucchini and tomatoes.  The high-tech farm includes 130 vertical hydroponic growing towers, each one containing about 40 plants. The towers use coconut fiber (coir) as a growing medium, which prevents contamination from harmful bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria. A benefit to this type of farming is minimal water requirements—a tower drinks less than three quarters of a gallon daily. And since the vertical growing system is powered by the sun, its overall energy costs are negligible.

Alegría Fresh’s  Soxx Farm, a collaboration between Alegría Fresh, Orange County Produce and Filtrexx Corporation, is equally innovative. The farm employs GardenSoxx, an innovative natural, nutrient-dense food production system that can be used over cement or other man-made surfaces. The Alegría Soxx farm consists of 13 rows of 5 Soxx each, for a total of 7,200 linear feet of growing space within an 8,500 sq. ft. area (approx. 1/5 acre). According to Alegría, production yields are nearly double that of conventional farming, and water usage is 70% less. Thirteen different specialty crops including four cultivators of beets, onions, red and green romaine, radicchio, treviso, red and green cabbage and kale are being grown to demonstrate the versatility of the system.

Future of Urban Food Systems Conference Coming to OC in November; Early Bird Special Tickets Available

grow local oc conference future of urban food systems orange county

The Grow Local OC: Future of Urban Food Systems Conference takes place on November 10 – 11, 2016 at California State University, Fullerton.

Early Bird Special Tickets are now available for a limited time for the Grow Local OC: Future of Urban Food System Conference presented by Seedstock in partnership with the Orange County Food Access Coalition.  The conference  is slated for Nov. 10 – 11, 2016 at California State University, Fullerton in Orange County (Hosted by U-ACRE). It will focus on the community and economic development potential of urban food systems efforts across southern California and the country to improve food access and health outcomes, connect people to their food, and create new jobs and business opportunities by employing innovative business models and farming systems of the future.

Below are additional details on the two-day conference.

Day 1: Conference Day (Nov. 10, 2016):

Attendees will convene at the Portola Pavilion on the campus of California State University, Fullerton in Orange County, CA for a series of panels and keynotes that will address such topic areas as the importance of local food systems development for cities, the economic potential of indoor agriculture, the expansion of the local food marketplace, urban farming and local food access, community gardens and farms, and more.

Learn More – http://growlocaloc.com/conference

Confirmed Speakers:

Karen Ross – Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture
Mark Lowry – Director of the Orange County Food Bank
Rachel Surls – Sustainable Food Systems Advisor for UC Cooperative Extension
Chef Adam Navidi – Founder, Future Foods Farms and Oceans & Earth Restaurant
Rishi Kumar – Co-founder and Director of The Growing Club
Christina Hall – Executive Director of OC Food Access Coalition
Erik Cutter – Managing Director of Alegria Fresh
Dwight Detter – Executive Director, Slow Money SoCal
Colin and Karen Archipley – Co-founders of Archi’s Acres and AISA (Archi’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture)
Aaron Fox – Asst. Professor, Urban & Community Agriculture at Cal Poly Pomona
Chris Higgins – General Manager at Hort Americas
Megan Penn – Executive Director of Orange Home Grown
Sara E. Johnson – Director of the Urban Agriculture Community-based Research Experience (U-ACRE) program at Cal State Fullerton
…and more!

Day 2: The Future Farm Field Trip (Nov. 11, 2016):

The Urban Food Systems Field Trip will offer a limited number of attendees an excursion into the diversity of innovative urban and state-of-the-art agriculture operations across Orange County. Tour participants will be treated to lectures and sessions from pioneering farmers who are embracing innovative business models and growing systems to both increase food security and take advantage of the escalating demand for local food. Scheduled stops on the tour thus far include:

  • Future Foods Farms – Future Foods Farms, located on 25 acres in Brea, California, produces all organically grown products in its 2,000-4,000 square-feet greenhouses and is one of the largest aquaponic farms in the state.
  • Urban Produce – Irvine-based Urban Produce has developed the patented High Density Vertical Growing System (HDVGS) as a sustainable alternative to traditional agriculture, utilizing advanced hydroponic technologies in a controlled environment.
  • Alegria Fresh – Alegría Fresh, located in Irvine, CA is a zero-waste, solar-powered one-acre high performance urban microfarm employing hydro-organic and hybrid soil-based growing systems.
  • The Riverbed Farm – The Riverbed Farm in Anaheim is an aquaponics farm, a farming system that combines elements of aquaculture and hydroponics. The farm uses minimal water to operate and produces over 2,000 pounds of food for underserved residents.

To purchase early bird tickets, please visit: http://growlocaloc.eventbrite.com

Grow Local OC Conference to Explore Importance of Urban Farming in Cities

Across Southern California, a new breed of small farmer is emerging to not only take advantage of the growing demand for local food, but also to connect urban communities to their food. These farmers are nimble, resourceful and pushing the limits, often working on backyard plots within or on the outskirts of cities that are less than 1-acre in size. Yet they are creating economically viable business models by growing salable produce on every inch of their land.

To provide valuable insight into how this type of small plot urban agriculture might benefit your city and community, or even find a place in your own backyard, the upcoming Grow Local OC: Future of Urban Food Systems conference set to take place on November 10 – 11 at Cal State University, Fullerton will feature a number of notable experts who will address the “Potential of Urban Farming in Cities.” Experts set to participate in the conference and discuss the economic viability of urban farming and its community development potential include:

rishi-kumar-growing-home-150Rishi Kumar is a farmer, educator, and urban peasant. co-founder of the Growing Club, co-founder and director of The Growing Club (thegrowingclub.com), a non-profit organization based in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, CA working to create systemic cultural change through the avenues of food, farming, and community empowerment.

Since 2011, he has operated The Growing Home, an urban farm and model of suburban sustainable living based near Los Angeles. Rishi’s work has been featured by the Los Angeles Times, GOOD Magazine, KPCC, KPFK, KCRW, and the urban farming documentary “Urban Fruit”.

Rishi has a background in Computer Science, with degree from UC San Diego.  He has apprenticed at Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya Farm in Dehradun, India. Rishi is a Master Gardener and Permaculture Design Certificate holder.

sarajohnsonSara E. Johnson is a Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Fullerton and the director of the U-ACRE program there. U-ACRE, or the Urban Agriculture Community-based Research Experience (U-ACRE), is a program that seeks to accomplish the following: the development a replicable model of  urban agriculture as a tool to increase food security; strengthen community outreach in areas of urban agriculture and food security; provide hands-on community-based research experience for undergraduates; and arm students with knowledge and skill sets for jobs and careers in STEM and NIFA-related fields. The U-ACRE program has been nationally recognized for its community engagement and preparing students to participate in a global society and the workforce.

Aaron Fox Cal Poly Pomona Urban AgricultureDr. Aaron Fox is Assistant Professor of Urban and Community Agriculture at Cal Poly Pomona. Dr. Fox, along with Dr. Eileen Cullen, is creating an Urban and Community Agriculture minor program at Cal Poly Pomona where students will learn the production and business skills as well as the policy and social issues surrounding urban agriculture. Dr. Fox has developed a number of new courses, including a Farmers’ Market class where students meet with market managers, non-profit leaders, farmers and government agencies at 9 different farmers’ markets across Southern California. Dr. Fox has also worked with students on developing indoor growing spaces in shipping containers and creating a kitchen garden for the campus’s fine dining restaurant. Dr. Fox conducts research on what beneficial insects exist on urban farms and has begun looking at sustainable ways of managing pest insects like the Bagrada bug.

Rachel Surls Los Angeles Cooperative Extension Urban AgricultureRachel Surls is the Sustainable Food Systems Advisor for University of California Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County, part of UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR). From backyard gardens, to urban agriculture, Rachel is involved in a variety of projects related to urban food systems. Since 2013, she has worked with UCLA students to conduct the “Cultivate LA” survey of urban agriculture in Los Angeles. She recently led a UCANR team that carried out a state-wide needs assessment of urban farming. Rachel is a member of the leadership board of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, and has been active in their urban agriculture working group which has successfully advocated for policies that support growing food in the city. Rachel and a co-author recently published a book on the local history of urban agriculture, titled “From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles.”


Early Bird Special Tickets for the Grow Local OC: Future of Urban Food Systems conference are still available, so click on the link below to reserve your spot to hear Rishi Kumar, Sara Johnson and Aaron Fox discuss how you can leverage small plots from your backyard to a vacant parking lot to create thriving urban farms that benefit the city, economy and community.

Register herehttp://growlocaloc.eventbrite.com

Hydroponics and Healthy Soil Propel OC Grower’s Urban Microfarm

Erik Cutter surrounded by the growing systems he has developed at Irvine’s Alegria Fresh micro­farm. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

Erik Cutter surrounded by the growing systems he has employed at Irvine’s Alegria Fresh micro­farm. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

Launching and running an economically viable urban farm is difficult under even the most favorable conditions. In Orange County, where land prices are at a premium and homes cannot be built quickly enough to fulfill resident demand, the prospect of finding available land and launching a profitable urban farming venture is viewed by many as remote and, at best, a very large challenge.

To an entrepreneur, though, a very large challenge is often viewed as a big fat opportunity. Such is the case with Erik Cutter, a Laguna, CA local and entrepreneur with a background in biochemistry and oncology.  

In 2012, Cutter set out to not only sustainably grow nutrient rich produce, but also to demonstrate the economic viability of urban farming in Orange County. To do so, Cutter designed a farm comprised of 22 vertical hydroponic growing towers holding a total of 750 plants on a 260-square-foot plot in Laguna’s Bluebird Canyon. Cutter christened his urban microfarm, Alegria Fresh. He also built the microfarm to prove that you could use water efficient, environmentally friendly vertical hydroponic growing towers to create a high yield farming operation on a small plot of land, pretty much anywhere.

Cutter says that microfarms are great for urban areas as they can be used to re-purpose existing sites–like abandoned lots–and can be placed on asphalt, on top of contaminated soil, or even on cement. “I actually prefer cement because it is weed free,” he says.

A starter plant is placed into a GardenSoxx at Alegria Fresh where it will receive nutrients and moisture for growth. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

A starter plant is placed into a GardenSoxx at Alegria Fresh where it will receive nutrients and moisture for growth. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

In 2013, in order to expand his operation and educate community members and stakeholders, Cutter moved his farm to Irvine’s Great Park and set up his hydroponic vertical growing towers on a half-acre plot there. To complement the vertical growing towers and so that he could grow larger vegetables including squashes, kohlrabi, and beets for local consumers, Cutter incorporated an additional growing system, known as GardenSoxx. GardenSoxx are long, horizontal polypropylene mesh tubes that the farmer stuffs with his growing medium of choice–soil, compost, or coir. The farmer then inserts seeds, or seedlings, into the GardenSoxx, and applies nutrient-dense water. The GardenSoxx are beneficial in that they provide excellent drainage and aeration, thereby helping the plants get the oxygen they need to create strong root systems.

Between its hydroponic vertical growing towers and GardenSoxx, the farm grows over 80 different types of nutrient dense produce including leafy greens, root vegetables and herbs. The farm sells to restaurants and direct to consumers onsite and through a CSA. These sales make the farm profitable enough to cover operational costs and provide a living wage for its staff.

“We average around $12K per month in sales on our little farm, and we are only farming intensely a half an acre at any one time,” says Cutter. “If you extrapolate those numbers out [annually], that’s $144,000 on a half acre and $288,000 on a full acre. […] the average farmer likes to generate $50,000 on a commercial acre, so we’re already doing five or six times that.”

Cutter believes that this system of efficient and dense farming on re-purposed land is a viable solution for anyone striving to launch an economically viable urban farming venture where available and affordable farmland is hard to come by–as it is in Orange County. Alegria Fresh may soon get a chance to replicate its growing success inside new residential communities. Cutter is talking to several developers about placing Alegria Fresh microfarms inside residential communities currently under development. From Cutter’s perspective, “that’s gonna be the new paradigm shift in urban agriculture, that we’ll build scalable, high performance, zero waste, urban micro-farms within a community development. I’ve been waiting for developers to see this as a valuable amenity and they are starting to see that.”

“When you put this in a community model, it benefits the residents,” Cutter says, “[as] you are actually competing with supermarkets, but the food is far superior.”

(Note: At time of writing and due to planned development of a sports complex at the farm’s current Great Park location, Alegria Fresh is moving to a new site on Marine Way just outside the park. Please check the farm’s website for location information and updates.)

Erik Cutter will also be participating in the upcoming Grow Local OC Conference on November 10-11, 2016 at Cal State Fullerton. To hear him speak about hydroponics, soil health, and urban farming, click here: http://growlocaloc.eventbrite.com

5 Local Farms Surviving and Thriving in Orange County

Land that used be home to officers’ housing on a marine base is now used for farming at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. (photo courtesy A.G. Kawamura/Orange County Produce)

Land that used be home to officers’ housing on a marine base is now used for farming at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. (photo courtesy A.G. Kawamura/Orange County Produce)

Farming in Orange County is a challenge. Arable and available land is not only scarce, but oftentimes prohibitively expensive. Tenant farmers continually butt up against the relentless encroachment of urban development, which forces them to relocate their operations over and over again. But despite difficulties, farmers in the county persevere and even thrive. The growing local food movement in the county and greater Southern California region has also helped to provide farmers with new markets and opportunities. The OC farms listed below have employed grit and resourcefulness to achieve economic viability in a challenging agricultural environment.

Orange County Produce

Run by third generation Orange County growers A.G. and Matthew Kawamura, Irvine-based Orange County Produce, LLC (OC Produce) is a local farming enterprise committed to continuing the tradition of agriculture in the county. They have done this by being adaptable and mobile as they farm on vacant lots they lease. Often these lots are awaiting development, but haven’t broken ground for one reason or another. OC Produce signs a quick lease, they get to farm the land for a couple of harvests, and the landowner sees some income from his land. It is a win-win situation for all parties—including county residents who like to eat locally grown food.

OC Produce grows a wide variety of produce – from squash, tomatoes and peppers to higher value value fruits and vegetables like radicchio, strawberries and an extensive selection of beans produce – on approximately 1000 acres spread across 30 to 40 plots around the county.

OC Produce fruits and vegetables can be found at local farmer’s markets, in grocery stores and on restaurant menus, often just hours after being picked. The company also donates produce to local food banks as it believes in, “the common sense philosophy that food produced and consumed locally has multiple benefits for society, the economy and the environment.”

The Original Manassero Farms

When the folks at The Original Manassero Farms talk about growing for the “local market”, they mean hyper local, as much of what they grow is sold from their own distinctive red barn farm stands located in Irvine, Brea, Tustin and Cerritos. Owned and run by third-generation Orange County grower Dan Manassero and his wife Ann, the farms are famous throughout Orange County for their strawberries. Manassero Farms also grows squash, tomatoes, corn, herbs, lettuces, and a variety of other berries. In addition to selling fruits and vegetables from their farm stands, the Manasseros sell to local Whole Foods Markets. They also produce and sell their own jams, jellies and other preserves. 

To prevent any unsold produce from going to waste, Manassero Farms has partnered with local gleaner, Loaves and Fishes X10. This partnership makes it possible for thousands of pounds of free and fresh produce to go from the Manassero’s fields to local food banks and charities. From there, it is distributed to families and individuals in need throughout Orange County.

Neff Ranch

The presence of Orange County oranges at a number of farmers market in the region is in no small part due to the efforts of Don Neff, President of Neff Ranch, one of the last remaining orange growers in the county. After relocating to Southern California from Washington, Neff, a homebuilder and developer, was presented in with the opportunity to manage the remaining orange orchard on the Yorba Linda, CA estate of Susanna Bixby Bryant.

The location of the estate’s 21-acre orchard in the Santa Ana River floodplain kept its 4,000 Valencia orange trees safe from being bulldozed for new housing. In addition to the orchard that it manages at the Susanna Bixby Bryant estate, Neff Ranch also manages a 13-acre Hass avocado orchard in Tustin that is located on the hillsides of the Emerson tract subdivision.

Tanaka Farms

Glen and Shirley Tanaka and their son, Kenny, run Tanaka Farms on 30 acres of leased land located next to the Irvine Open Space Preserve. The Tanakas have embraced agritourism wholeheartedly and their farm is always teeming with local residents participating in educational farm tours and taking advantage of pick-your-own produce opportunities (they grow some 60 different crops throughout the year). The Tanaka’s also operate an onsite farm stand and a CSA with a membership base of 450-500 subscribers.

Kenny says location is key to the farm’s success. “You cannot tell you are in the middle of the city. We are kind of in a little valley so you don’t see many homes around. There is a different atmosphere here.” He continues, “If we had to replicate it somewhere else in Orange County, we probably wouldn’t get the same amount of traffic.”

Tanaka Farms gets about 20,000 visitors a year, with the largest crowds showing up during strawberry season (March-June) and during October’s Pumpkin Patch. The farm also hosts “Cookout Tours” where participants take a guided tractor or walking tour around the farm to pick their own veggies and then cook them onsite for a picnic.  

They also host regular gleaning days where volunteers pick produce that is donated to the South County Outreach and Families Forward in Irvine food pantries.

Future Food Farms

Chef and farmer Adam Navidi has transformed 25 acres in Brea into Future Foods Farms, a forward-thinking urban farming dynamo. The farm uses aquaponics to raise tilapia and grow a wide array of produce including lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, vegetables, peppers and flowers.  

Careful use of resources underpins everything done at Future Foods Farms, as Styrofoam boxes destined for the landfill, old nursery pots and even old salad bars are repurposed and used in the growing operation. There is even a herd of goats onsite to tend to unwanted weeds so no power mowing is necessary. Although, in truth, many of those weeds are far from unwanted, as Chef Navidi uses them when creating dishes for his restaurant and catering events.

The list of items grown at Future Food Farms includes an array of organic greens, herbs, vegetables, peppers and even edible flowers. But buyers won’t find the farm’s output in stores as the farm does not sell to wholesalers. Instead, the farm’s produce is available in area restaurants, to CSA subscribers, and at farmers’ markets throughout Orange County.

From Foster Care to Purveyors of Farm to Table Fare

Monkey Business Cafe, a social enterprise in Fullerton, serves up healthy helpings of farm-to-table fare foraged and prepared with the assistance of its young staff of eager teenage boys and young adults on the cusp of aging out of the foster care system.

Monkey Business Cafe, a social enterprise in Fullerton, serves up healthy helpings of farm-to-table fare. Photo Courtesy of Monkey Business Cafe.

Monkey Business Cafe, a social enterprise in Fullerton, serves up healthy helpings of farm-to-table fare foraged and prepared with the assistance of its young staff of eager teenage boys and young adults on the cusp of aging out of the foster care system. New patrons arrive daily often drawn by the effusive praise heaped upon its culinary offerings on page after page of glowing Yelp reviews; and they leave sated and happy in the knowledge that they’re helping to support a good cause.

Monkey Business Cafe began when Cari Hart-Bunevith, executive director of Hart Community Homes (HCH), realized that she could do even more to help the teenage boys in foster care at the two state-licensed residential treatment homes that she runs for boys ages 13-18 in Orange, CA . Read more

“Grow Local OC” Conference in Orange County, CA to Examine Future of Urban Food Systems

grow local oc conference future of urban food systems orange county(Orange County, CA) – Grow Local OC: The Future of Urban Food Systems, slated for Thursday and Friday, November 10-11, 2016, will explore innovative urban food system developments underway in Orange County and cities across the country that increase the supply of locally grown food in the marketplace, tackle food poverty and access challenges, improve health outcomes, and support entrepreneurship in urban and indoor farming.

On day one of the conference attendees will convene at the Titan Student Union at California State University, Fullerton for a series of panels and keynotes that will explore a variety of topics, including: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Urban Food Production; Expanding Local Food Access; Building a Regional Food System Infrastructure; The Confluence of Food System and Community Development; and more. Read more

Where Once a Revivalist Tent Stood, An Educational Community Farm Rises

Gospel Swamp Farm, located at the Heritage Museum of Orange County in Santa Ana, is a working farm focusing on education. (photo courtesy Jose Mendoza/Gospel Swamp Farm)

Gospel Swamp Farm, located at the Heritage Museum of Orange County in Santa Ana, is a working farm focusing on education. (photo courtesy Jose Mendoza/Gospel Swamp Farm)

On ground where a revivalist tent once stood, Orange County’s agricultural heritage is being resurrected in the form of an emerging community farm that grows over 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables from chocolate cherry heirloom tomatoes and chard to kale and strawberries.

The farm, situated on the property of the Heritage Museum of Orange County, goes by the name, Gospel Swamp Farm. The name pays homage to not only the land’s tent revivalist roots, but also to the fact that it is situated amidst a rare remnant Orange County swamp land that is aptly called Gospel Swamp.

Today, most of Orange County is developed and many residents don’t even have a sense of the region’s agricultural history, much less what the land looked like prior to the planting of thousands of citrus trees.

Wanting to teach Heritage Museum visitors about Orange County’s agricultural history, former director of agricultural programs Patrick Mitchell worked to make the farm a centerpiece of the museum’s offerings. Mitchell has moved on, and director of volunteer programs Jose Mendoza now manages the operation.

One of Gospel Swamp Farm’s main purposes, according to Mendoza, is education. Learning opportunities for students of all ages focus on sustainable agriculture, ecology, habitat restoration, and more. He says the farm’s urban setting and the fact that it’s located at a museum boosts its educational offerings to many visitors. A key objective is reestablishing a connection between people and what they eat.

“We want people to understand where their food comes from,” says Mendoza.

The farm values education for people of all ages, including children.

“There’s a children’s garden onsite—we want to grow things that kids can see, touch, smell, feel and taste,” Mendoza says.

Students from Santa Ana College and Irvine Valley College also help with and learn about composting. College students, high school students and an array of other volunteers gain knowledge of and utilize organic farming techniques as they produce more than 40 kinds of fruits, vegetables and herbs. After harvest, produce is sold at the Downtown Santa Ana Farmers’ Market.

The types of fruits and vegetables grown at Gospel Swamp Farm vary each year. Last year the farm produced several types of cherry tomatoes, including the Chocolate Cherry heirloom varietal. This year, crops comprise strawberries, carrots, corn, potatoes, kale, and various herbs. All produce is grown as organically as possible.

“We have an organic philosophy but we’re not certified-organic,” Mendoza says.

Gospel Swamp Farm depends on the help it gets from volunteers, who supply seeds and take over certain projects. And among the advantages of volunteering at Gospel Swamp Farm is the privilege of eating fruits and vegetables grown there.

“Volunteers benefit from the perk of taking stuff home,” says Mendoza. “This is encouraged.”

While Mendoza does not feel that Gospel Swamp Farm directly impacts the local food system in Orange County, he sees the possibility for wider influence in the future.

“We see potential for a role in the local food system with groups we are affiliated with. The key could be serving as a hub for community gardens in Santa Ana and Orange County,” he says. “We’re doing our own things at the moment—we’re doing our best to make it a place for people to visit.”

Looking ahead, Mendoza would like the farm to showcase fruits and vegetables that are representative of Orange County’s many cultures.

“I had the idea of separate raised beds for different regions in Mexico and the world to reflect Orange County’s diversity,” Mendoza says. “That way people could grow what they would grow in their home countries.”

Mendoza would also like to expand the farm’s educational outreach.

Gospel Swamp Farm is supported by people who donate money and equipment, and the money it makes from selling at the Downtown Santa Ana Farmers’ Market is spent on farm-related expenses.

Community Garden Rises in Stanton to Bolster Health Outcomes and Increase Food Access

Volunteers work at the Stanton Community Garden located in Stanton, California. (photo courtesy Lisa Wagner/Orange County United Way)

Volunteers work at the Stanton Community Garden located in Stanton, California. (photo courtesy Lisa Wagner/Orange County United Way)

A desire for better health outcomes among Orange County’s youth population was one of the main drivers for the development of the Stanton Community Garden.

“We want to increase the number of healthy children in Orange County,” says Orange County United Way volunteer engagement manager Kautrina Morgan. “That’s the big picture.”

The City of Stanton is somewhat of a food desert, according to Morgan. She says the western Orange County city has its share of liquor stores, and that the obesity rate of its residents is high.

The new community garden, a collaboration between the City of Stanton, Orange County United Way, and Community Action Partnership of Orange County, directly addresses these problems by putting land to good use, producing healthy food, and combating obesity through nutrition and food education, she says. Read more