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Farmer Fears There’s No More Room to Grow

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joe Cicero stays up all night. By morning, he’s chain-smoking Marlboro Lights and waiting beside the telephone. A judge in a courtroom somewhere is supposed to make a decision on legal matters that Joe doesn’t quite understand, legal matters that could put him out of business.

“Heck, I’m just a farmer,” Cicero says. “Let me get back to my tractor.”

He should be accustomed to such difficulty; it should run deep in his blood. The Cicero family has farmed the San Fernando Valley for 40 years, struggling to earn an honest living in an urban area that can’t seem to abide rural ways.

Fields that the Ciceros once leased--good, flat ground that held water--have been overrun by tract houses and strip malls. The government has told them which pesticides they can and can’t use. And the price of seed and diesel and water keeps rising.

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Cicero figures that if his grandfather Frank, who started the business, had foreseen a day such as this, “he wouldn’t have done it.”

Joe is the only farming Cicero left. These days, he leases a 15-acre patch at Pierce College. Rows of sweet corn fill the field in summer. Most of the corn gets shipped to market; the rest is sold at a roadside stand. And each winter, Cicero trucks in Christmas trees to sell for extra money--money that keeps his struggling farm afloat.

But last month, a company that has a tree lot across the street filed suit. Miller & Sons asserted that Cicero’s lease with Pierce College allows him to sell only what he grows on the property. The college has since joined in insisting that Cicero pull the trees off the lot.

The farmer has resisted. More court hearings are scheduled.

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“Before this started, I didn’t even know what litigation meant. My attorney finally told me it’s ‘lawsuits,’ ” Cicero says. “Then I read this word tort . Heck, that’s what my Mexican workers eat for lunch.”

If all those legal words end up meaning that Cicero can’t sell Christmas trees, he might have to close shop. He’s waiting by the phone.

Frank Cicero came to this country from Sicily, where he had grown grapes. He tried farming near Chino, then moved in 1947 to work in the Valley’s sandy loam and a climate that was much like his Mediterranean homeland. His son, Frank Jr., farmed alongside him.

Those first years were difficult as the Ciceros adjusted to the soil and pests of this region.

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“I can remember hearing all sorts of stories about it when I was a boy,” says Joe, who was born in 1950.

The Ciceros have always been dirt farmers--earning enough to lease land but never enough to buy their own. They worked a 57-acre lot at Saticoy Street and De Soto Avenue for many years. After that, they leased 300 acres of government land in the Sepulveda Basin.

Those were good years, especially in the early 1960s. Labor and seed were cheap. The Ciceros’ Iowa-sized cornfield drew plenty of customers because it was within sight of the freeway. Hollywood used the farm to film scenes for movies and television shows such as “Lassie.”

But in 1985, the federal government decided to turn the farm into parkland and the Ciceros had to move. They leased 150 acres in Saugus. Soon that land was sold for a housing tract. The family is down to its last 15 acres at Pierce.

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Such change has been a constant for the Ciceros: Their leases always run out and there is always someone waiting to turn good farming land into more profitable residential or commercial property. Developers have chased the family all over town.

“As the city moved in, we moved from place to place to place,” Joe Cicero says. “We learned to shrug a lot of things off. We learned to work harder.”

That’s because each time they moved, they started anew with hard and barren land.

Such ground must be broken. It must be fertilized with potash and zinc. The corn gets planted alongside sections of grass and oats and tomatoes to enrich the soil. After each harvest, the cornstalks are tilled under to add nutrients.

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And each season brings a new virus or bug--cutworms, leaf miners, smut, mites. The process is never-ending.

“When you get it right, the dirt is fluffy and it holds water,” Cicero says. “The best thing is when you look in the rearview mirror of the tractor and watch the land break just right.

“Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way.”

But it happens often enough to keep the crops coming. Local people have been buying corn from the Ciceros for three generations. Since early on, the family has kept turkeys and goats at its stand for children to play with. At Halloween, the family sells pumpkins and offers hayrides.

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At Christmas, tree shoppers are treated to sleigh rides.

“It’s one of the few earthy things that hasn’t changed in the Valley,” says Jill Swift, a longtime resident and local Sierra Club leader. “This sort of thing takes you back to your childhood when you went to corn stands and pumpkin stands. . . . There’s a quality of living that you don’t get when you go to a supermarket.”

Said Doris Bradshaw, president of a group called Fans of the Basin: “Cicero provides the community with traditional Americana. Farmer fun.”

But all that may end soon. Cicero’s 18-year-old son, Ronnie, has no intention of following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

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“He’s seen the struggles and he doesn’t want any part of it,” Cicero says. “Maybe he’ll be a doctor.”

Joe never had such thoughts. At 18, he was working the land every day.

“Once it gets in your blood,” he says, “you can’t get rid of it.”

He couldn’t see himself in business meetings or arguing over the phone or writing things down on paper. There is a time clock in the closet-sized office at his farm, but it is unplugged.

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“The work is physical work, but physical work is the easiest work. The days go by fast. If you sit behind a desk, each day lasts forever,” he says. “You hear people say, ‘Thank God it’s Friday.’ I don’t care what day it is. I work seven days a week.”

And the customers at his stand are old friends, people he has come to know over the years. Here comes Mrs. Johnson, he says, and she always buys six ears. Mr. Howard likes his corn medium-ripe.

While Cicero waits for word from his attorney, the phone rings continuously. His customers are calling to wish him well.

In 1957, the Cicero farm charged $3 wholesale for a crate of corn. These days, a crate sells for $5.50.

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The cost of growing corn, however, has risen by a much greater margin. Corn seed has doubled in price during the last few years. Packing crates have increased from 18 cents to $1.36. Diesel and water and pesticide are just as bad.

As a result, Cicero lost $80,000 last year. His wife, Janet, had to take outside work as a credit manager. They had to dip into savings and sell $22,000 worth of Christmas trees to stay in business.

His grandfather is dead. So is his father. Cicero perseveres.

“Farming is what I know,” he says. “I can’t change my career now. I can’t be a dentist.”

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There is one year remaining on Cicero’s lease with Pierce College. At this point, the college is threatening eviction if Cicero doesn’t stop selling Christmas trees. He’s already ordered $150,000 worth of them and he isn’t about to eat that loss.

Even if the courts settle the matter in Cicero’s favor, he is less than confident about getting his lease renewed.

So Cicero has been looking for land near Sacramento. If one of the Valley’s oldest farming families can’t work here, the Ciceros will take their tractors and head north. Cicero says he will plant corn in the sand if he has to.

“My youngest comes out in the field with me,” he says of his son, Tony. “He’s 8 years old and he drives a Caterpillar. A Caterpillar!

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“I think he’s going to be a grower.”


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