The Winter Harvest of the South Central Farmers

With little fanfare–no celebrity visits, no circling sheriff’s helicopter–the South Central Farmers opened a community center last week. Tables jammed with Swiss chard, radishes, pomegranates, almonds, squash, and grapes lined the sidewalk and overflowed crates. South Central residents were choosing among organically grown produce that was tastier and more colorful than anything in Wild Oats or Whole Foods, fresh from the new farm.

The center is a slap in the face to two Farm opponents, developer Ralph Horowitz and District 9 Councilmember Jan Perry, but it’s only another round in the Farmers’ struggle, and that struggle only an apex in a decades-long battle between the people and land developers in Los Angeles.

The center itself is four freshly painted rooms, lined with art and photos and reminders of the fight to save the Farm, waiting for more art, music, and computers. Here the Farmers and their supporters will meet to assess the South Central community’s needs and how best to meet them, where they will teach healthy eating to all who will listen.

And they will use the center to pressure local officials to take “a principled stance,” as Tezozomoc put it. He and Rufina Juárez have led the Farmers through the eviction and on to these latest contributions from the Farmers to the most industrialized areas in Los Angeles. With evident pride, he added, “We delivered what we promised: we said we’d raise the money to save the Farm, and we did. We promised to deliver healthy food to the community, and we are. We’ll be here every month.”

Across the street is a vacant lot where the South Central Farm once grew. The trees were pulled from the ground and their roots imprisoned in wooden cages for transport to Huntington Park, after Perry refused to find space in her district for this living memorial of the Farm. But the fight for the land at 41st and Alameda goes on still, in courtrooms and in low-key conference rooms.

Some of the original Farmers have gone in different directions. Some are digging plots in Venice, and some in gardens in Watts, newly opened because of the Farmers’ eviction. Some have given up the skills of generations. But some, a hundred or so families, are holding on to the original vision to raise fresh, healthy food for the inner city.

That group, now an incorporated non-profit, has acquired a small school bus. On Friday nights, after work, families climb aboard and travel for hours into the Central Valley, the vast farmlands north of Los Angeles. Not long past dawn, they are in the fields of their new farm, churning the earth, planting and watering seeds, weeding the tiny sprouts, harvesting their first winter crop, and, a day later, driving it along Interstate 5 back to South Central. Sunday is back to the field, jamming a week’s work into a weekend.

The new farm doesn’t have a name yet, but its produce will soon appear at farmers markets across Los Angeles proudly carrying the South Central Farmers’ brand.

The new farm, now fourteen acres with a hundred and thirty more available for eventual cultivation, isn’t the old Farm. It isn’t as picturesque: just row upon row of crops dotted with a wife and husband or a father and daughter carefully pulling weeds away from tiny green onion sprouts. Toddlers still run through the furrows, but the bougainvillea-laced fences that marked garden plots, the homey tarps sheltering hammocks and tools, are gone.
It was just after the eviction that a benefactor came forward with the offer to turn part of his organic farm over to the Farmers. As Ruben, a Yaqui Indian from the area who has joined the original Farmers, describes it, the connection was fated. The landowner and a speaker for the Farmers found themselves at the same speakers’ table for a Central Valley gathering. The landowner, who hadn’t heard of the Farm, decided by the end of the Farmers’ story that he would figure out a way to bring the Farmers north.

The plan nearly collapsed when, just weeks later, the landowner was killed by a motorist. But the Farmers’ magic is infectious, and the son proved to be as generous as his father.

Generosity has come in fits and starts for the Farmers. In 2003, after years of squabbling about the future of the land, the Los Angeles City Council voted to sell the fourteen-acre swath of land owned by the Harbor Commission back to one of its original owners, Ralph Horowitz, at nearly the same price the City had paid when it bought it from him in 1986. The council spurned the three hundred and fifty Farm families who had painstakingly rescued the informal dumping ground and drug stop and turned it into a thriving Farm, delivering fresh produce to the most neglected areas of the city. Horowitz promptly raised his asking price for the Farm to three times what he had paid for it. Low income Farmers took time from their jobs and the Farm to work the corridors of City Hall. Support poured in from around the city and the world, including legendary environmentalists and celebrities, demanding the council rescue the Farm. The fight threatened to devolve into a Brown-Black conflict when African-American Councilmember Perry pulled in favors and tossed around threats to hold the city council together against the Farmers. But when the Chicano Mayor, elected in a fragile Chicano, white liberal, and African American coalition, abandoned his Chicano base, the real players were revealed.

The political story of the City of Los Angeles has never had much to do with stars or studios. The real power players have been land developers, seducing politicos with campaign support in exchange for facilitating permits and directing federal redevelopment funds their way. It was predictable: as Chicanos exercised enough political muscle to elect a mayor, that same mayor, with open aspirations for a governorship, would have to choose between the poorest members of his ethnic electoral base and the entrenched power brokers. When Chicano Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa failed to deliver a promised $5M to help save the Farm, the developers had found their candidate.

Land has been the major L.A. commodity since Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler bought up the San Fernando Valley, but by the 1980s L.A. had little left to develop. The 1992 South Central rebellion was not the only uprising in Los Angeles of that decade. The other was the quieter white Westside rebellion, begun in the late 1980s when gated communities and home owners’ associations demanded that developers stop the encroachment of renters, in barely disguised code for racial and cultural redlining. That rebellion culminated in 1994 with the passage of the draconian Proposition 187 (later largely overturned in U.S. District Court). The message was clear: burgeoning Black and Brown populations would be squeezed into the tightly bounded East Los Angeles and South Central neighborhoods. The inevitable tensions would be quelled by police batons. When the batons landed on Rodney King, South Central burned.

The city purchased the land that became the South Central Farm from Horowitz and others in 1986 for a massive incinerator project, but South Central residents organized as the Concerned Citizens of South Los Angeles and halted the burning of 1600 tons of trash daily in their neighborhood. In 1994, the city sold the property to the Port Authority, since it lay on the soon-to-be-developed Alameda Transportation Corridor. The Port Authority turned it over to the L.A. Regional Food Bank so that agency could assist the Farmers who had taken root on the land.

But developers always win in Los Angeles, even when intolerant Westsiders and environmentally-conscious Southsiders push them out. The developers of the eighties remade themselves into redevelopers of the nineties, taking land already in use and finding ways to squeeze out a little more profit by demolishing the old and erecting the new. The city council found two ingenious solution to both the 1992 Rebellion and the Westside homeowners rebellions: the South Los Angeles Comprehensive Economic Strategy, a plan to industrialize and commercialize much of South Central, with a gaggle of federal subsidies for redevelopers to raze damaged and undamaged mom-and-pop stores and replace them with strip malls replete with low-income, low-skilled jobs. When Councilmember Perry last month offered three hundred acres of land for development in her district, she was including half a dozen projects still earmarked for federal assistance to redevelopers.

Perhaps, when they voted to sell the Farm to Horowitz, city council members had in mind the cartoon stereotype of a somnambulant Mexican lounging, lethargically oblivious, against the spines of a cactus, hat pulled over an unseen face–the same graphic emblazoned on developer Horowitz’s letterhead. No one predicted that the Farmers would line up celebrities like John Quigley, Daryl Hannah, Julia Butterfly Hill, Joan Baez, Martin Sheen, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, and Willie Nelson to bring influential Westside liberals to their cause. No one predicted the Farmers would call up international support, not the least of which were farmers rebelling against development and its erosion of traditional life–commonly dubbed “progress”–in Atenco, Mexico. And no one predicted that young people from across the Los Angeles, unjaded by political “realities,” would risk incarceration for the Farmers.

The Farmers managed to raise the $16M Horowitz was demanding, largely from the Annenberg Foundation, but Horowitz turned it down. On June 13, less than a week after the sheriff’s re-election victory party, sheriff’s deputies burst through the barriers erected around the Farm by supporters encamped there for the three weeks following the eviction order. Quigley and Hannah were plucked from a California black walnut tree with an immense hook and ladder fire truck propelled across two generations of labor, crushing original corn and nopales under massive tires. Fourteen mostly young people, arms locked into concrete-filled oil drums, were jackhammered out and hauled off to jail.

Apparently Horowitz hasn’t found a buyer for the land. Under his custodianship, in the six months since the eviction, the block has reverted to the dump and drug haven it was before the Farmers rescued it. Perhaps $16M is too high a price, or perhaps the problem is the echoes of the struggle still there, in the remnants of banners and children’s drawings taped to the fence, in the tiny child’s plastic chair buried among discarded sofas and tires. Horowitz is preparing to grade the land himself. It seems sixteen million dollars is too much to ask for land already paid for with sweat, community prayers, and the sacrifice of young people standing in the path of bulldozers.

But the eviction was then. Today, breakfast on the new farm is instant coffee, tortillas, beans, and chicharrones. Then it’s into the fields, with a crew of fifteen. As many as thirty Farmers have worked the new farm on a weekend, but many more, because of age or disability or work or family commitments, are waiting amidst the asphalt and concrete of South Central, hoping to return to the site of the original Farm.

I’m paired with Juan, a ninth-grader who glibly rattles off what colors you can’t wear on which blocks in his neighborhood. Seventh and eighth grades were problematic for him, arguments with teachers and fights, but this year he’s avoiding trouble, he explains matter-of-factly. A few minutes later, he pulls out one iPod earpiece to tell me that he wants to be a farmer and a lawyer, to protect the farm.

The work is slow and grueling. When hours are marked by only yards, even feet, of progress up a 1500-foot furrow, it pays to stay in the moment. I’m too slow to do much good, so I get to sit and kneel in the trenches as I pluck through the tiny green onion stalks, but Maria all but runs down her row in a crouch that makes me wince. “We all do what we can here,” I’m reassured. The Farmers collectively decide to abandon the rest of the green onions to the weeds–the market price isn’t worth the labor of picking weeds from the tiny sprouts–and to move on to the carrots. Now I understand the high cost of organic produce–it’s this, the interminable weeding that agribusinesses alleviate with a killing rain of pesticides.
Lunch is chili, salsa, oranges, and buttercrunch lettuce with the dirt shaken off. Winter crops are the hardest, I’m told; spring will bring ochre and, of course, original corn, both easier to tend. There’s a small squabble between the Mexicans and the Peruvians about whether the tortillas should be cooked directly on the fire’s ashes or on a grill. The grill proponents win, but one Mexican whispers to me that the charcoaled tortillas are better. I’m handed a bunch of the freshest, crispest spinach I’ve ever tasted, and we all snack on the leaves. Next week, the spinach will arrive in South Central.

About half a mile away and far overhead, a helicopter rumbles by softly. One Farmer points skyward and comments, “It’s Jan Perry looking for land for the Farm.” Fits of laughter follow: last month, Perry had tried to salvage her reputation with a much-ballyhooed publicity ride in a helicopter over Los Angeles ostensibly to find vacant land for the Farmers.
The afternoon is more of the same, albeit a little faster–the carrot tops are easier to spot among the unwanted grasses, and the ground is softer. Stefanie and her father slowly overtake me one row over. Stefanie confides with a mischievous grin that she plans on being a councilmember and unseating Perry. But her dad and I can only look at each other, silent across the language barrier. “Aqui estamos,” he offers. “Y no nos vamos,” I finish the Farmers’ now famous chant. We begin a litany of Farm chants until they move out of range. A couple of rows over, four-year-old Sandra practices her numbers. “Eight, nine, ten,” she concludes. “Eleven,” I add. She looks up, surprised, and then giggles and launches into a count to twenty for me. Her mom looks up and beams. And then there’s Rusty, who has no language barrier. He romps across the fields, sometimes with a mouthful of almond branch. He stops occasionally, offers a couple of kisses, and flops over in a furrow for tummy rubs.

The irrigating is finished; it’s dark now. Produce is boxed up for transport back to the city. Maria, Berto at her side, waves me over. We start the long walk back to the trailer. Five-year-old Berto tries to translate for us, but he doesn’t quite understand what he’s being asked to do. “Almendra,” I stumble, following Maria’s lead. “Arboles.” “Trees.” “Casa móvil.” “Trailer house,” Maria enunciates carefully. She signals that she’s a garment worker, as she heats a pot of water. The garment workers in the crew protect their hands with latex gloves so they can delicately handle the fabric at their jobs.

The rest of the Farmers trickle in. We sip warm horchata, sweetened with sugar and cinnamon. The portable TV reports on the outcry against Mel Gibson’s “Apolcalypto.” While the Farmers ruminate about the film, Stefanie tries to write a book report on “A Catcher in the Rye.” One of the Farmers runs through a series of stretches on the floor, and everyone laughs when Berto lies down and mimics him.

I’m hitching a ride with the produce and the driver is ready to go, so I have to leave my half-drunk horchata. Driving through the darkness, the driver explains that the new farm is a haven from the daily frustration of language differences and dehumanizing urban life. On the new farm, as on the original, they’re creating a community that shares traditions and stories, where the Farmers manage both labor and product, and where children learn respect for ancestral traditions. An electric line needs to be run to the trailer and a septic tank needs to be installed, but soon some of the Farmers will move to their new farm.

The Farmers’ problem now is distributing what, in a few months, will be thousands of pounds of food. They have their agricultural producers certification to allow them entrée to farmers markets, they have fellow Farmers and supporters back in L.A. to work the booths, but they need a refrigerated truck for the nearly fifty tons of lima beans, broccoli, peas, cauliflower, and other crops coming in soon. It’s pouring rain as we climb up the mountains, and I ask what will happen to the produce if the tianguis is rained out. “We’ll give the food to Catholic Charities and Food Not Bombs,” the driver tells me. “That’s what we do with whatever’s left.” The L.A. Regional Food Bank, the original Farm’s sponsor but which ultimately abandoned it to the city, isn’t on the list. But Catholic Charities has braved a sweltering blaze of political heat with its unflinching support for immigrants.

And Food Not Bombs cooks healthy food for the homeless in MacArthur Park, next to the downtown section of Perry’s council district. Perry, the champion of industrialization for South Central, has been equally vehement in directing police roundups of the homeless to gentrify downtown. “Maybe Food Not Bombs will let us hang a sign.” The driver begins to smile. “Healthy, organic produce for poor people, brought to you by Food Not Bombs and the South Central Farmers.” “Hi, Jan!” he quips. In the intermittent glow along the highway, he is grinning from ear to ear, and the lights of L.A. twinkle over the mountain crest.

LESLIE RADFORD is a correspondent for Aztlan Electronic News and L.A. Indymedia. She can be reached at