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Joe Guzzardi: Urban agriculture may keep California farming alive

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Posted: Saturday, April 12, 2014 12:00 am

Los Angeles County, where I was born, reached an ominous milestone last July. Recently released Census Bureau data show that in 2013, L.A. County’s population inched over 10 million, nearly twice the total of second place Cook County, Ill. with its 5.3 million people.

In 1940, L.A.’s population was a hard-to-believe-it-was-so-low 2.8 million. Back then, residents had the roads and the beaches to themselves. The long forgotten Sunday drive along the Pacific Coast Highway or through the abundant San Fernando Valley highlighted the week. There was no such thing as overcrowded schools, backed up emergency rooms or long waits at the DMV. Now those common headaches are part of the daily L.A. grind.

As one friend told me, when he’s doing 30 miles per hour on I-405, he’s happy. INRIX, a nonprofit that studies traffic patterns, reported that road congestion is outpacing economic growth by a 3-1 margin. Predictably, California’s traffic is the worst; last year motorists lost 64 hours stalled in frustrating tie-ups.

Just a few decades ago, even for average Californians, the state was paradise. A $150 weekly salary would qualify a buyer for a modest home in a safe, working class neighborhood.

Hard as it is to believe today, until the 1950s, L.A. County was the top agricultural county in the U.S. From 1910 to 1955, California produced more crops than Iowa, Illinois or Kansas. Ironically, the abundant production may have been the beginning of the end. As people came to Los Angeles and saw how fertile the land was, more followed. Then the L.A. Chamber of Commerce advertised farming to lure new people, and gradually land was subdivided into small half-acre to 3-acre farms. As the population grew, track houses pushed out the farming communities. Eventually, concrete ruled.

But although California’s population surge is unlikely to abate significantly, there is a ray of hope for those who want to keep the state’s rich farming tradition alive.

California cities and counties that want to encourage small-scale, boutique farms and community gardens in urban areas can take advantage of legislation signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown that will allow municipalities to lower the assessed value and property taxes on plots of three acres or less if the owners guarantee that food will be grown on them for a minimum of five years. The Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act passed the Senate unanimously and received only six “no” votes in the Assembly

The project, conceived by Stanford Law School graduates Nicholas Reed and Juan Carlos Cancino, who founded the San Francisco Greenhouse, is voluntary. Interested parties must seek final approval from county supervisors.

Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who wrote the legislation, said, “We started to see a movement in cities all over California that have really decided they want to be growing their food. They want to have access to agricultural space.”

Gov. Brown’s bill is a small but consequential step to maintain Los Angeles’ history as an agriculture haven. Urban agriculture zones won’t turn the tide against increasing population but are nevertheless important, especially to the communities that benefit from them.

Joe Guzzardi, retired from the Lodi Unified School District, lives in Pittsburgh where population growth is low. Contact him at

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