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L.A. farmers: Tilling, we meet again

Times Staff Writer

Five months after sheriff’s deputies shut down a legendary urban farm in South Los Angeles -- removing protesters and plucking celebrities from trees -- more than 60 of the farmers have put down new roots in Watts.

A quilt of rectangular plots has transformed a narrow power-line right-of-way stretching from 103rd to 117th streets near Avalon Boulevard. Where weeds once bunched against steel towers, tall rows of corn and sunflowers wave. Chayote vines climb over fences. Purple-flowered alache nod in the breeze.

Manuel Abalos lives just blocks from the old South-Central Urban Farm at 41st and Alameda streets. But he doesn’t dwell on its loss, so eager is he to arrive at his new plot near 111th Street each day at 3 a.m. He works until 2 or 3 in the afternoon tending the onions, tomatoes and other vegetables he gives to his family and neighbors.

“I’m happy all the time when I’m in the garden,” Abalos said, beaming beneath a battered straw hat.

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On Saturday, Abalos put down his hoe long enough to mark the formal opening of the Stanford/Avalon Farm on land owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The gala was part of a city-sponsored “Day of Service” that drew 4,500 volunteers to Watts to plant trees, paint murals and clean up schools and parks.

The farmers began tilling the soil at their new farm -- about two-thirds the size of the old one -- in January, after it became apparent to many of them that the South Los Angeles farm they had worked since 1992 could not be saved.

The old farm had a storied past. In 1986, the city used eminent domain to buy the land from owner Ralph Horowitz, but nearby residents quashed plans to build a trash incinerator. The lot sat empty until after the 1992 riots, when the city leased the land to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and the city’s largest community garden sprouted.

In 2003, Horowitz sued to buy back the land. But by then it had become as much a community center as a garden. When Horowitz began trying to evict the farmers, it also became a symbol of self-reliance and hope in a neighborhood with too little of either. Celebrities, including Joan Baez and Martin Sheen, supported the farmers. Daryl Hannah climbed a walnut tree and refused to come down.

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Things turned ugly at the end. Horowitz called the farmers squatters and accused some of the protesters of making anti-Semitic remarks about him. In June, sheriff’s deputies forcibly shut down the farm.

Those who moved to the Stanford/Avalon Farm left months before the bullhorns and bulldozers arrived.

“There was always a group of people who just wanted to garden. They just wanted to farm,” said Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district was home to the disputed farm. “It was great to be able to offer people a solution to a difficult situation. This is a beautiful ending -- no, it’s a beautiful beginning, actually.”

Perry searched Los Angeles by helicopter, working with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the DWP to find vacant public land for the farmers.

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“I said from the beginning that I would do everything I could to find other sites,” said Villaraigosa, who stopped by the Stanford/Avalon Farm on Saturday to turn a shovel and dance to a mariachi tune.

Juan Mendez kept a firm grip on his son Andrew’s shoulder as the ever-energetic Villaraigosa steered a Caterpillar past them. A farmer at the old site, Mendez has applied for a plot in Watts. Abalos estimated that about half of the South L.A. farmers either had plots or were on the waiting list.

The nine-acre Watts site has room for just over 200 family farms. The 14-acre South-Central Urban Farm supported about 350 farmers.

Some of the other former farmers have found new plots at other Los Angeles community gardens, the Watts farmers said. And some continue to fight Horowitz in court. They recently lost an appeal and are trying to raise funds to buy back the land, said Olivia Chumacero of the Annenberg Foundation, a philanthropic group that made an unsuccessful offer to buy the farm.

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Los Angeles has about 70 community gardens, including at least one other beneath a DWP power-line right-of-way. The volunteer Community Garden Council helps organize the gardens, and some funding comes from city block grants.

Each garden forms a governing organization, adopts bylaws and decides how much to charge gardeners for rent to cover the costs of water, portable toilets and fencing. Crown Disposal Co. of Sun Valley donated tons of wood chips and soil amendments for the Watts project.

Not every Stanford/Avalon plot belongs to a former South-Central farmer. Monica Lopez, 18, lives across the street and tends a plot with her parents, three brothers and three sisters. The family had never planted a garden; Juan Gamboa, a leader of the South Los Angeles group, showed them how.

“Don Juan taught us what to do, what to plant, in what season,” Lopez said.

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Perry praised the transplanted farmers, many of them Mexican immigrants, for reaching out to Watts residents, many of whom are African American.

None of them will have to worry about being booted out, Perry added.

“They will be there for a very, very long time,” she said. “They won’t have to worry, because it’s public land.”

mary.engel@latimes.com

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