Agriculture's Next Frontier

How urban farms could feed the world

| November/December 2000

Early Girl and Celebrity tomatoes hang ripe and ready. Swollen pods of beans cover lima plants. The deep orange shoulders of carrots poke out of the ground in long rows. Collards, black-eyed peas, and okra stand up in their fullness against the din of this urban world.

'Do you know where you are?' two Los Angeles police officers ask me. 'I think so,' I reply, somewhat confused by their question. 'Do you really know where you are?'they ask again. 'Do you realize that these two blocks are the two most violent blocks in the entire city of Los Angeles?'

I am standing on the corner of 103rd and Grape in Watts, in a three-acre garden. Half of the land is devoted to small private plots farmed mostly by Hispanic families. Their gardens are filled with foods from Mexico, from Central and South America: tall milpa corn, dry beans, hot chili peppers, epizote, verdulaga, alfalfa, and various squashes. The other half of this land is a market garden planted in okra, black-eyed peas, lima beans, carrots, tomatoes, collard greens, cucumbers, and squash: foods from the American South grown for the African American community that lives next door in the Jordan Downs housing project.

This is a community with an average per capita income of $8,000 a year, a neighborhood where more than 50 percent of the male population is unemployed.

One hundred miles to the north, floating in a sea of tract homes and shopping centers, is a small farm where I live and work. Most of my neighbors are employees of Raytheon, Applied Magnetics, Santa Barbara Research, and Delco--the companies that designed the 'smart'bombs used during the Persian Gulf and Kosovo wars. Here the average income is $65,000 a year, each home has at least two cars, and crime is virtually nonexistent.

Our farm produces a hundred different fruits and vegetables: avocados, mandarins, peaches and plums, tomatoes, peppers, melons, corn, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, berries, and herbs. We also provide nourishment of a less tangible nature through tours and educational programs we offer the community. The land is located in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country, saved from development and preserved by the community through a conservation easement, protected in perpetuity for future generations.