On Rich Soil Long Since Forgotten, an Urban Farm Rises to Reconnect Region to its Agricultural Roots

elliott kuhn founder of cottonwood urban farm in san fernando valley california

Elliott Kuhn, founder of Panorama City, CA-based Cottonwood Urban Farm. Photo courtesy of Cottonwood Urban Farm.

California’s San Fernando Valley, located in Los Angeles County, was once well known for its rich croplands and farming communities. From its founding in 1874 until the mid 1920s, an abundance of fruit orchards, cattle and sheep ranches, and large-scale wheat farms made agriculture the valley’s biggest industry. However, as a result of the arrival of affordable automobiles and rise of the aircraft and motion picture industries, urban development driven by a population boom encroached upon agriculture and the glory days of food production in the San Fernando Valley came to an end.

In San Fernando Valley today, however, on a formerly vacant plot of land a small urban farm has emerged to help reconnect the region to its agricultural roots. Founded in 2011 in Panorama City by Elliott Kuhn, Cottonwood Urban Farm is a sustainable farming venture that not only offers a reliable source of locally grown fruits and vegetable to area restaurants, chefs, and community members, but also functions as an educational resource for the community. 

“For me the San Fernando Valley is just amazing. It just has to be reimagined,” says Kuhn. “When you drive through here you’ll find really old citrus trees peppered all through the valley, through public spaces, through people’s private lands; and so again, that reimagining, that reawakening and how we can fit that back into the San Fernando Valley is important.”

Cottonwood Urban Farm uses succession planting and intercropping to make the most of its 1/4 acre of urban farm land in downtown Panorama City. Growing in fertile loam rich soil, Cottonwood provides an abundance of fruits and vegetables for its weekly stand at the popular Altadena Farmers’ Market in Los Angeles County. As well as a variety of seasonal vegetables such as root crops and fair weather greens, Cottonwood grows herbs, wild flowers and processes honey from the bees that live on the property. Kuhn’s specialty is fruit, and the farm currently offers apricots, melons, grapefruit, pomegranates, peaches, pluots, mulberries and nectarines.

Despite an abundance of fresh greens, Kuhn is candid about the economic return on his investment. “I am under no delusion or intention to make my living solely off the produce coming off my farm. Farming in the city is very much about farming the relationships and communities that are around you,” says Kuhn. “The benefit of being a farm in the city is the ability to reach communities and to engage in education and community building. That’s where I’m seeing the greatest gains in my efforts.”

Education is a core objective at Cottonwood Farm. Indeed, Kuhn supplements the farm’s income by taking part on a regular basis in Sustainable Economic Enterprise of Los Angeles’s (SEELA) Bring the Farmer to Your School program. The program provides funding for local farmers to bring their produce to local schools, educate children on the benefits of growing their own food, making better food choices and of course, letting them sample a few home grown wares.

Another program that Cottonwood Farm has established is its youth rehab program. Kuhn was invited a few years ago to create an ecology curriculum for a young offender’s rehab center. After a year, funding for the program dried up. Despite that minor detail, every Friday the rehab center’s residents come out to the farm for a couple of hours to enjoy what Kuhn refers to as “horticultural therapy.” Many of the center’s residents complete group projects at the farm as part of their exit process. Some even commute independently to the farm to volunteer before commuting back to the home in an effort to transition from the rehab center to everyday life.

On the farm and off, Kuhn recognizes the need to work with other local organizations interested in promoting community and sustainable choices in the urban environment. “It’s a symbiotic relationship because they have the network established, they have deep ties to the community, and absolutely this helps,” says Kuhn. “What I’m offering them is not only my land, but my expertise and my ability to make the idea of agriculture more accessible to those communities through educational opportunities.”

Cottonwood Farm recently received a grant to collaborate with Vision Zero Initiative, a progressive urban organization focused on community safety and awareness. The farm also began a collaboration last year with Pacoima Beautiful, another area nonprofit. Their joint Sustainable Saturday initiative turns the farm into a meeting place for local food swapping. The farm recently connected with a local church which has its own restaurant. Kuhn works closely with the chef to provide the vegetables to a steady number of weekly customers.

Despite a successful farm with a growing reputation, Kuhn is eager to change directions and spend more time and utilize more space on the property for cultivating his personal propensity for fruit trees.

“This year I went big and ordered 150 fruit trees,” says Kuhn. “I feel like urban agriculture is almost synonymous with vegetable production. No one really thinks about orchard production within the city and that’s really what’s interesting to me.”

Kuhn’s plan is to remove 40 garden beds and transition the space into an orchard. Kuhn wants to help promote the concept of the backyard orchard into the urban environment and reconnect the land to the city’s agricultural heritage.

Like many urban growers, Kuhn sees the urban farm as a hub for social activity and a place where differences mean little, where there is growing to be done.

“I think urban ag is not only sustainable as far as we can grow our own food, but I think it’s something about building community together. It doesn’t matter your cultural background, it doesn’t matter your socioeconomic level—we all need to eat. I think bringing people back into that process is really beautiful. However you describe yourself, we can come together in the garden.”

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