Region’s Farmers Being Weeded Out By Urbanization

Times Staff Writer

As he approaches age 60, after a lifetime of farming, John Alesso is thinking of subdividing 420 acres that he owns between Interstate 5 and Highway 14 near the Kern County border for development into “an equestrian community” of five-acre estates.

Not only will the proceeds provide retirement income, he says, but his new neighbors would become customers for the alfalfa hay and vegetable crops that he expects to continue producing in the upper Antelope Valley.

“There’ll always be some agriculture here in Los Angeles County,” Alesso predicts, “some small horse ranches and some alfalfa grown to supply them, but we won’t see agriculture as we’ve known it.”


Alesso is hardly alone among farmers caught in the urbanized or rapidly urbanizing Southern California counties. Since World War II, population pressures and rising land and water costs have forced citrus orchards and dairy farms north from San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties into the Central Valley. Population pressures are squeezing traditional farming areas from the Oxnard Plain along the Ventura County coast inland to Riverside County.

Those farmers who remain have shifted over the years to such intensively cultivated and high-value crops as cut flowers, nursery products and specialty produce. Only in hot and arid Imperial County, where irrigation water remains plentiful and cheap and where most crops ripen when supplies are shortest, does farming appear relatively unaffected by urbanization.

Even in the region’s leading agricultural county, Riverside, third-generation citrus grower Larry Topham feels the pressure and expects to sell off the orchards established by his grandfather in the county’s wide-open spaces in 1923. Now, Topham says, Riverside’s city limits are “about 20 feet” away, and neither his son nor his daughter want to carry on with farming.

“The land is a farmer’s retirement package,” he says. “You want to be able to move on.”

Move or adapt has been the recent history of agriculture in much of Southern California, and it looks unlikely to change as the century draws to a close. But agriculture nonetheless remains an important, if sometimes overlooked, part of the Southern California economy.

Riverside produced crops worth nearly $1 billion last year, making it California’s fifth most important farm county (behind Fresno, Tulare, Kern and Monterey). Even in the region’s lowest-ranking farm county--17th-ranked Orange County, neck-and-neck now with Los Angeles County--agriculture still produced crops valued at more than $250 million last year.

‘Not Out of Woods’

In between were eighth-ranked Imperial County at $689 million; Ventura (No. 10), $613 million; San Bernardino (11), $557.2 million, and San Diego (13), $572.6 million.

While Riverside is far and away the region’s most important agricultural county in terms of crop value, Imperial remains the most typical of the state’s interior farm belt that stretches the length of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.

“We don’t have a water problem, and we’re not bothered by urban encroachment,” says Claude M. Finnell, Imperial’s agricultural commissioner. “The big problem is markets and low prices, but things are looking better. But we’re not out of the woods yet because so many farmers have incurred so much debt.”

Elsewhere, agriculture and urbanism coexist in uneasy proximity. Not surprisingly, the future of the farm economy is being shaped by the increasingly high cost of water and intense competition for land as city dwellers push out ever farther in search of more affordable housing.

“What generally happens,” says Cal Kaminskas, Riverside’s deputy agricultural commissioner, “you have the early farming on prime land and, as urbanization moves in, farmers seek land that earlier was considered unfarmable--on hillsides or on less fertile soil.”

New cultivation practices and such techniques as water-saving drip irrigation have brought this formerly overlooked land into production, he says. As a result, Riverside County’s farm acreage has actually increased over the past decade to 362,000 acres last year from 350,000 in 1976.

Riverside’s acreage experience is more the exception than the rule in Southern California, however. And those who remain in agriculture full time have had to adapt to urbanization and the attendant higher costs of farming by changing crops and growing more intensively. In Ventura County, for example, citrus groves and vegetable row crops are gradually giving way to such higher-value crops as strawberries, nursery products and cut flowers.

And in San Diego County, where water can cost up to $500 an acre-foot--10 times the state average--tomatoes, the county’s leading crop 10 years ago, have been pushed out of the south county area and now rank sixth in value behind avocados, nursery products, eggs, milk and oranges, says Agricultural Commissioner Kathleen A. Thuner. Celery, once an important crop on the Otay Mesa running along the Baja California border, has disappeared as the mesa becomes transformed into an international commercial-industrial area, she says.

‘Need a Gimmick’

Ben Hillebrecht, 59, a third-generation farmer in San Diego County, is fortunate among Southern California’s farmers in having a son willing to carry on the family business. But, he says, continued profitability will require the same nimbleness of 32-year-old Mike as it has of him.

“I tell folks that you need a gimmick to survive in farming south of the Tehachapis,” Hillebrecht says. The Hillebrecht gimmick has been to sell much of what he grows to his new neighbors at a produce stand on Highway 78 at Summit Drive in Escondido.

“It’s opened another window,” he says.

To make the market work, Hillebrecht has diversified wildly from the original citrus groves that he inherited from his father, and is now growing more than 40 different crops for direct sale most months of the year.

The Hillebrechts and other farmers in rapidly urbanizing Southern California are beginning to find some support in local government for what they contribute to the region’s quality of life--beyond the revenue agriculture generates from crops and farm supplies. County planners are coming to view farmland as valued “green space” that helps retain a rural air that city dwellers find attractive, Thuner says.

While farmers welcome any government support for their contributions, they remain skeptical that they can hold out for long if houses continue to creep toward their operations, with all the noises and smells that go with farming. In addition, Hillebrecht says, urbanization brings increased pilferage and vandalism.

“It’s not a very friendly situation,” he says, but added: “We’re going to hang on as long as we can.”


County (Rank in State) 1986 1985 1976 Leading Crops Riverside (5) 986.6 937.5 492.9 Citrus, Trees and Vines, vegetables and melons. Imperial (8) 689.0 743.0 520.7 Lettuce, carrots, cantaloupes Ventura (10) 613.0 567.6 330.2 Lemons, strawberries, celery, poultry and dairy, oranges, nursery stock, avocados. San Bernardino (11) 557.2 560.5 342.6 Milk, eggs, cattle, alfalfa hay, nursery products, oranges. San Diego (13) 572.6 545.5 322.8 Avocados, nursery products, eggs, milk, oranges, tomatoes. Los Angeles (16) 254.5 293.8 174.2 Ornamental trees and shrubs, bedding plants, eggs, horses. Orange (17) 254.3 260.1 153.5 Nursery stock and cut flowers, strawberries, oranges.

Source: County agricultural commissioners