For nearly 50 years, Bill Barnes and his family have tilled the dry, sandy soils of the Antelope Valley, praying for rain and hoping to grow enough barley to scratch out a living. In all that time, Barnes figures that he never got a single offer from a real estate agent to purchase his land.
But that changed last year just after a newspaper article announced a developer's plans to build a massive community in the open desert some miles away. For the next week, Barnes' wife, Eldora, recalled, their phone rang off the hook with bids for parts of their nearly 1,000-acre farm 25 miles west of Lancaster on the fringe of the valley.
The couple eventually sold their interest in several parcels of land totaling nearly 500 acres to investors for as much as $3,600 an acre--nearly 15 times what they paid for it 12 years earlier. The transactions secured for the Barneses a financially comfortable retirement, but also helped fuel the accelerating disappearance of agriculture from the Antelope Valley.
"Virtually everything is up for sale or been sold," said Gary Mork, a Lancaster-based inspector with the Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner's office. "They're all subdividing like crazy, and once farmland is gone, you can't ever bring it back."
With developers and speculators willing to pay as much as $30,000 an acre, the trend is unlikely to slow down, experts said, even in the face of a housing market that has reached a plateau.
Los Angeles County's farmland, which made it the nation's most productive agricultural county in the 1940s, has been steadily consumed by the advance of urbanization. Housing tracts and shopping centers began a relentless march across the San Fernando Valley in the 1950s, consuming orchards and crops along the way. As agriculture faded elsewhere, the Antelope Valley's farms accounted for a greater and greater percentage of the county's agricultural output.
In the 1980s, amid a countywide population and real estate boom, the search for affordable housing and an escape from the city began transforming the area. But relatively cheap housing is only one reason for the demise of agriculture in the valley.
Since at least the 1950s, the region's farmers have been beset by dry and uncertain desert weather, pests and other factors. More recently, a fourth year of drought, pesticide restrictions, rising water prices and potential cuts in water supplies have added to farmers' burdens--and made it more profitable to sell the land than to till it.
In addition, many of the valley's farmers, such as Barnes, are reaching retirement age, and their children are pursuing other, less uncertain careers. Inside of 10 years, agriculture officials predict, large-scale farming will become a thing of the past in the valley as well as in the county.
And as the farmers who once constituted the backbone of the high desert region disappear, so does its dominant culture.
The names of some of the Antelope Valley's communities--Almondale, Pearblossom and Pearland--evoke just some of the many crops grown in huge quantities during its more than 100 years as an agricultural region.
The amount of acreage farmed in the Los Angeles County portion of the valley dropped to its lowest level in modern times last year, to 10,600 acres from 73,015 acres as recently as 1970, according to the agricultural commissioner's records.
The valley no longer produces enough onions, alfalfa and peaches, its major crops, for their disappearance to be felt much by consumers, agriculture officials said. But many longtime valley residents believe that the region is losing something more important than its crops.
"If you lose your agriculture and your ability to produce, you lose your nation," said Richard Campbell, a Lancaster-based soil conservationist with the U. S. Department of Agriculture. "You lose a kind of sense of freedom and people change; they're not the same anymore."
Some residents said they no longer leave their doors unlocked, fearing the break-ins that have plagued many neighborhoods. Others regret the loss of business relationships based on trust and friendship, saying they have been replaced by impersonal transactions.
The corner general stores have been replaced by warehouse-size discount marts, and many of the agriculture-related businesses, such as Robertson's farm equipment store in Lancaster, are gone. Robertson's was replaced by a recreational vehicle dealer about five years ago.
"I think Lancaster and Palmdale are ruined. It just ain't what it was," said Barnes, 67, whose family has lived in the Antelope Valley since 1887. On a first-name basis with many of the area's storekeepers, as well as most of his neighbors, Barnes remembers when he could barter his chickens' eggs for other products.
"It bugs me when I go to Costco, Home Club and Target" to shop, he said. "We are forced to do business with them, but they don't have any personality."
At the same time, though, Barnes concedes that it is development that has given him and his wife a financially secure retirement.
In past years, Barnes and his wife depended entirely on barley for their income. But after selling part of their land, Barnes figures that he paid more in taxes last year than he ever earned in a year of farming. The couple said they still intend to farm some, but they no longer have to.
The disappearance of agriculture is having another effect. Older valley residents recall when the region was covered with grain fields, particularly alfalfa, from one end to the other. Today, strong desert winds kick up severe sandstorms from those same fields, now barren.
Although the high desert is marginal farming land, irrigation kept it cloaked in a protective carpet of green. Now that protection is gone. Campbell and others said the sandstorms, which were particularly severe last week, were the worst they had seen.
"Some of the fields you are seeing blowing out there now were once irrigated lands, with alfalfa, and had a cover," said Campbell, who as the area's Soil Conservation Service representative is responsible for controlling erosion. "That would make a difference."
The purchase of farmland by development companies and investors reached its peak last year. Much of the recently purchased land remains in production, leased to farmers, but it's unlikely to remain undeveloped for long.
Developers said they often seek to buy working farms, rather than vacant desert land, because the farms typically have an established source of water. The farms are also relatively large chunks of land under a single owner, which makes them easier to acquire.
"The land ownership patterns in many areas are extremely fragmented," said Andy Atsaves, an official with Lincoln Property Co., a major developer. He attributed that to intense land speculation in the 1960s and '70s spurred by the city of Los Angeles' still-delayed plans to build a major airport in Palmdale.
Lincoln, for example, last year paid about $5.2 million, or $12,000 an acre, to acquire a 400-acre farm at the eastern edge of Lancaster that had been cultivated for decades. Although the land continues to be farmed, Lincoln hopes to build a nearly 1,300-unit community there.
Likewise, a company owned by the family of the late Walt Disney, North Hollywood-based Retlaw Enterprises, was close to selling its 580-acre Antelope Valley farm before the deal failed late last week, officials said. The reported price was close to $10 million, or about $16,000 an acre.
Such prices are enough to turn the head of even the most committed farmer.
"When I moved out here, I intended to farm until I died and my kids took over for me. But my kids figured there's got to be an easier way to make a living," said John Alesso, president of the Los Angeles County Farm Bureau. He farmed in the valley for more than 38 years until retiring recently.
The 62-year-old Alesso sold 640 acres for about $3,000 an acre in late 1988, land he said he bought for about $155 an acre in the mid-1950s. Unlike the others, though, Alesso's buyer plans to use the land to test the application of sewage sludge as a farm fertilizer.
For all the grumbling by farmers and complaints about urbanization changing the valley, though, no measures to conserve the area's farmland are being discussed or proposed.
Mork, the county agriculture inspector who came to the Antelope Valley in 1976, recalled farmers' reactions when county planners about that time suggested limiting the conversion of farmland. "We'd be in favor of it, and the growers would be against it," Mork said.
"They didn't want to be preserved," Mork said, referring to the farmers. "They figured they're going to farm here as long as it's profitable and, when it's not, adios. "
DWINDLING AGRICULTURE IN ANTELOPE VALLEY
* Decline in alfalfa production
Includes alfalfa grown in parts of the Antelope Valley within Los Angeles County 1960: 32,500
* Decline in total agricultural acreage
Vegetables, orchard and field crops grown in parts of the Antelope Valley within Los Angeles County
* The importance of Antelope Valley agriculture within Los Angeles County
(In acres and value)
1989 1989 Crop Antelope Valley Los Angeles County Fruits/nuts 1,400 1,618 $ Value $7.2 million $10.1 million Field Crops 7,500 8,100 $ Value $6.8 million $7.4 million Vegetables 1,700 3,554 $ Value $12.5 million $26.2 million TOTAL $ $26.5 million $43.7 million
Source: Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner