The rich agricultural history of Los Angeles

Los Angeles is often seen as a concrete jungle: a sprawling metropolis of skyscrapers, highways, and Hollywood glamor. However, in the 21st century, many people are unaware of the rich history of Los Angeles as a center of agriculture, farming, and food production. In this article, we trace the city’s transformation from a humble pueblo to its rise and decline, while exploring the resurgence of agriculture in the heart of this urban colossus.

The old days

For many centuries, the Los Angeles Basin was occupied by the Gabrielino-Tongva and Chumash Indians who led a relatively stable life by hunting, fishing, gathering, and trading actively with other groups until Spanish conquistadores sailed into the Santa Monica Bay in 1542.

By the mid-1700s, early Spanish explorers began to recognize Alta California’s (the entirety of California today) true farming potential. Father Juan Crespi, one of the earliest Franciscan missionaries and explorers, wrote: “After crossing the river we entered a large vineyard of wild grapes and an infinity of rose bushes in full bloom. All the soil is black and loamy, and is capable of producing every kind of grain and fruit which may be planted.” 

What was to eventually become the city of Los Angeles, El Pueblo de la Reina de los Ángeles (“The Village of the Queen of the Angels”), was settled in 1781 by California Governor Felipe de Neve and 44 settlers from Sonora and Mazatlán. This first pueblo was built near a river they called Río de Porciúncula using local Indigenous labor from the adjacent village of Yaanga (Yang-na or Yabit).

The pueblo quickly developed into a small farming community with an effective irrigation system. By 1790, it was a major grain producer and soon expanded into large-scale fruit orchards and vineyards. Following this expansion, the 1800s saw over 100 acres of vineyards producing wine and brandy. In fact, the community became known for its grape production, and by 1851, about 1,000 gallons of wine were shipped across the nation.

With the Gold Rush and railroads came a population surge, and the city’s agricultural focus shifted to meet this demand, leading to the first commercial orange grove by William Wolfskill. Over time, diverse crops like hay, grain, citrus, and olives were cultivated, and the city experienced a farming boom, especially after the inauguration of the 1913 Los Angeles aqueduct. Between 1910 and 1950, Los Angeles County ranked the number one most productive agricultural county in the nation. However, post-World War II urbanization reduced much of the city’s farmland. Although greatly diminished, agriculture continued in surrounding communities, notably the San Fernando Valley, until the 1960s. 

While it has faded from its glory days, Los Angeles remains a significant part of the Golden State’s vast agricultural output today. In 2019, L.A. County farm production produced $177 million worth of agricultural products, mainly alfalfa, carrots, peaches, and nursery crops. As Angelenos re-engage with food and farming, community gardens and urban agriculture persist, reflecting the city’s rich agricultural heritage.

The future of LA

Tracing back to a time when cows grazed and crops flourished, Los Angeles has undergone dramatic changes. Today, parking lots and urban developments sprawl across thousands of acres of forgotten farmland.

This transformation from an agricultural industry at its height during World War II, to an urban landscape is significant. Despite being a health-conscious city, marked by juice bars and vegan eateries, Los Angeles is simultaneously grappling with stark economic disparities. In many urban neighborhoods, fast food has become the predominant diet, contributing to an escalating obesity crisis and a surge in chronic diseases. In fact, Los Angeles County has some of the highest rates of food insecurity, federal food assistance, and diet-related diseases.

However, urban agriculture can improve food equity and access, and therefore public health and urban food insecurity. For example, in Los Angeles city alone, urban agriculture can provide up to 111% of the current vegetable need if all available vacant lot area is converted. So, as farmers markets, community gardens, and urban farming gain momentum, Los Angeles’s agricultural past can hopefully offer solutions for the future. California is one of the best states for farmland in the United States; let’s make Los Angeles County part of that.

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