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A new setting for their plots

Times Staff Writer

To keep them from being booted off their inner-city garden plots, actress Daryl Hannah occupied the upper reaches of a walnut tree. Joan Baez showed up to sing for them. The land’s owner called them squatters, but Hollywood hailed them as urban heroes. Sheriff’s deputies and police officers in riot gear moved them out anyway.

Two years later, some of the evicted farmers from the former South Central Community Garden are among the newest landowners in this tiny town west of Bakersfield. With the help, they say, of a nonprofit foundation, they’ve bought 85 brush-dotted acres 130 miles north of the once-lush plots they tended on a sprawling lot in one of L.A.'s poorest neighborhoods.

Their Buttonwillow spread won’t be a working farm for two years -- but for now, a couple of dozen stalwarts from the embattled old garden raise vegetables on a leased field a few miles away in Shafter. Every Friday night, some make the long commute from Los Angeles in an old school bus they bought on Craigslist. After tending the crops and bunking in a rented house, they head back over the Grapevine with boxes of organic spinach, kale, carrots, beets -- a cornucopia bound for farmers markets throughout the city.

“Sure it seems unlikely,” said one of the group’s leaders, an aerospace engineer who goes by the name Tezozomoc. “But if we could farm in South-Central, is it so strange to do it here?”

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Tezozomoc’s father, Felipe Torres, was one of the original South Los Angeles farmers. Even as he lay dying of complications from diabetes, his son said, he would ask whether his garden was getting enough water.

“I didn’t have the heart to tell him we were kicked out,” Tezozomoc said.

Wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat and a flannel shirt, he paced through row after row of sprouting vegetables one recent Saturday. Here he pointed out the China rose radishes that are favored for dim sum pancakes. There, he stooped to tear off the crinkled, sweet, dark-green leaf of a Bloomsdale spinach.

“It’s our hottest product,” he said, scrutinizing a leaf sturdy enough to keep its shape under a drizzle of salad dressing. “The French chefs come by looking for it.”

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A former linguistics graduate student who named himself after an Aztec historian, Tezozomoc approaches farming with academic zeal, enthusiastically citing such sources as Hay and Forage Grower magazine. To describe workers pitching in together, he speaks of “collectivizing our economic base and leveraging our human capital.” To explain how they ask $2 for a bag of produce instead of charging by weight, he talks about a “simplified pricing model.”

Whatever the jargon, the group sells weekly at farmers markets in Watts, Leimert Park, Atwater and Hollywood, as well as at a monthly tianguis, or marketplace, set up outside the 14 acres they once farmed at 41st and Alameda streets.

At the Hollywood market, consumers chose them above some 90 other vendors for a “best variety” award last year.

Far down the field in Buttonwillow, half a dozen volunteers from MEChA, the Chicano student group, struggled with shovels and endless sheets of black plastic they were rolling out to keep the weeds down. Beside them were former regulars at the old South-Central farm, including cousins each named Miguel Tomas.

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Middle-aged garment workers in Los Angeles, the two Miguels were among the 350 people who tilled cilantro, camomile, lemons, avocados, sugar cane, bananas, guavas, peaches and nopal cactus on what was described as the largest urban farm in the U.S. While a legal appeal of their eviction is pending, many of the farmers have put down roots in other community gardens around the city.

Still, the notion of a full-scale organic farm has drawn a few all the way out to Buttonwillow.

“Working out here, you get even younger,” joked 54-year-old Miguel Tomas -- the older cousin -- as he dug his shovel into the soil. “It’s important that people see we’re not defeated.”

For a while, the group worked some land in Fresno. But it was too far from L.A., and gas ate up more than half their revenue. Then, tending a plot closer to Bakersfield, they were spotted by a local landowner who couldn’t help but notice workers hunched over row crops in an area dominated by cotton and alfalfa.

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“I saw them working weekends, and they reminded me of myself when I started out,” said Carlos Gomez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1974. “Any time I see someone working like they did, I’m interested.”

Gomez advised the weekend farmers on drainage, soil and seeds. He even used some old parts to build them a piece of tilling equipment they couldn’t afford to buy.

Meanwhile, Tezozomoc said, a foundation offered the group -- formally called the South Central Los Angeles Health and Education Fund -- a low-interest loan toward the purchase of the Buttonwillow property. He would not disclose the size of the loan, saying it could affect the ongoing lawsuit over the South L.A. eviction. The foundation, a Central Valley nonprofit that focuses on grass-roots economic initiatives, insists on anonymity, Tezozomoc said.

Set at the end of a dirt road that winds through oat fields and pistachio groves, the land was last farmed about eight years ago and looks rough, arid and, except for two donated mobile homes, empty. It has a good well but needs a $100,000 agricultural water pump, Tezozomoc said.

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“You see it and it looks bare,” he said. “But I see a farm.”

It looks nothing like the 14 acres that bloomed in South Los Angeles.

In a busy industrial area, the land had been a flash point for years. In 1986, the city used eminent domain to seize it from its owner, Ralph Horowitz, to build a trash incinerator there. But neighborhood opposition sank the city’s plan, and after the 1992 Rodney King riots, the Los Angeles Food Bank opened it up for community farming.

As the property grew into an inner-city oasis, Horowitz won a court order allowing him to buy it back. But by that time, the site had long since been transformed into a source of pride as well as produce, and the farmers were reluctant to leave.

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In 2006, a $16-million foundation-financed offer for the property collapsed, with Horowitz complaining that he had been demonized and subjected to anti-Semitic slurs. The farmers disavowed the slurs, saying they came from a website not affiliated with them.

More than 40 people were arrested during the farmers’ eventual eviction. From her tree, Hannah called the conflict “a situation of the needy versus the greedy.”

Weeks later, protesters immobilized a land-clearing bulldozer by stuffing a zucchini into its exhaust pipe. At a one-year eviction anniversary, Tezozomoc described the land as “culturally castrated and spiritually raped.”

Hard feelings linger.

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Mark Williams, a South Los Angeles neighborhood activist, blamed the farm’s death on the farmers themselves, saying their leaders bullied them and their tactics were needlessly confrontational.

“It was a disaster,” he said. “Now we’ve got a huge vacant lot smack in the middle of a community that needs open space.”

The farmers blame Horowitz and Jan Perry, a city councilwoman they see as his ally. Perry, who denied any involvement in Horowitz’s decision, said the site’s development would provide jobs to people in her job-starved South L.A. district.

Meanwhile, the farmers await a ruling on their appeal. They contend that the city sold the land back to Horowitz in an illegitimate sweetheart deal that cost the public at least $8 million.

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Horowitz said that he, too, looked forward to the ruling. Until it comes down, he said, building on his property would be risky.

As for the farmers’ venture in Kern County, he cast it as the American dream made right: “They’re paying a mortgage and they’re working a piece of real estate zoned agricultural? Then they’ve finally gotten where they belong.”

--

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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