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Like the Seasons, History Comes Full Circle

The San Fernando Valley was never meant for farming.

This place had suitable soil. It had a warm climate. But it didn’t have much water.

So the Tongva and Chumash Indians who originally inhabited the San Fernando Valley were hunters and gatherers. They survived off vegetation that grew naturally and off an abundance of wild animals.

It wasn’t until hundreds of years later--with the tapping of ground water and the construction of the Los Angeles-Owens Valley Aqueduct--that this naturally arid region was converted to agricultural land. By the early 1900s, the irrigated Valley had become a vast bowl of wheat fields and fruit orchards, stretching hundreds of acres in every direction.

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But history has a way of turning back on itself, and Valley farms are now as rare as they were in the days of the Tongva and Chumash.

Suburban sprawl--houses and office buildings and strip malls spilling over the hill from the Los Angeles Basin--have squeezed farmers out.

According to county records, there were only a dozen Valley farmers producing about $5 million worth of crops in 1985. By the start of this year, only half a dozen farmers remained, and the annual crop had dwindled to $1 million.

The story of Joe Cicero--a third-generation farmer from Woodland Hills who is down to his last 15 acres and may soon be forced out of business--applies to all farmers in the Valley.

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“It’s getting harder and harder,” said Tom Tapia, whose grandfather founded Tapia Bros. Farm in the Sepulveda Basin. Because the Tapias work 100 acres of government land, they do not have to battle commercial interests. But the government is gradually converting the basin into parkland.

“I’m sure there will be a day when there won’t be any farming land left,” Tapia said.

Bill Kemper, who used to work in the Valley as a county agricultural inspector, recalls times that were much different.

“Olives and peaches and oranges,” Kemper said. “Everywhere.”

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The race to develop began around 1942, he recalled. Kemper is retired, but he still keeps track of agriculture in the Valley and has watched it dwindle as fields are paved over.

“It’s going to look like Singapore pretty soon,” he said. “With the value of land, you can’t afford to grow crops. You’re not going to plant an acre of strawberries in the middle of New York City.”

The irony, Kemper said, is that the irrigated Valley offers ideal conditions for growing. Yet farmers are being forced to drier, less suitable areas.

“You ought to be building homes in the middle of the desert. They can afford to pump water into homes. They can air-condition homes,” he said. “Those things aren’t affordable for farming.”

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According to county records, the few farmers remaining in the Valley grow vegetables and herbs.

One of those farmers is Robert Dedlow, who started in agriculture only five years ago. He turned a back-yard hobby of growing herbs and lettuce into Kenter Canyon Farms, which sells to restaurants and has three lots in the East Valley.

Although his business requires little land--each plot is five acres--Dedlow has nonetheless felt the urban push.

“We run into problems with neighbors,” he said. “People complain about our open fields. There are residential neighborhoods that like to see only other residences around them.”

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