The UC Food Observer loves history. A site that we’re intrigued with – and really enjoying – is Tropics of Meta (ToM).

The site’s mission? 

“Tropics of Meta is meant to offer a historical and theoretical perspective on current events, popular culture, and issues in the academic world. We hope it can serve as a sounding board for new ideas and new research, as well as a clearinghouse for innovative projects in digital arts and humanities.”

(They also refer to their body of work as “historiography for the masses”). Tropics of Meta has addressed topics ranging from “Islamic philosophy to tax-increment financing, from fiction to street art.”

Co-Editor Ryan Reft is a University of California alum, earning his PhD from UC San Diego in urban history. Reft has crafted an absolutely riveting piece exploring the history of small farms and urban agriculture in parts of the Los Angeles basin. What he’s written may surprise you.

What lessons might the area’s past – and “rurban” homesteads – hold for today’s burgeoning urban ag movement?

Once upon a time, Los Angeles County was one of the nation’s leading agricultural producing counties. Most production agriculture has disappeared in recent decades. Today, the region is the site of a burgeoning and innovative urban agricultural movement. What’s less known about the region is its historical legacy on the vanguard of the “small farm movement” in the 1920s and 1930s, when “Rurban Homes” were built that created suburban homesteads in El Monte and the San Fernando Valley. They were part of a New Deal program developed by the Department of Subsistence Homesteads (DSH).

DSH sought to create “subsistence homesteads” that would enable wage earners to simultaneously farm at their homes to increase self-sufficiency. Forty units were built in the San Fernando Valley; 100 homestead units were constructed in El Monte.

Reft argues that the combination of “its film, agricultural, and manufacturing industries made Los Angeles County a prime location for the small farms movement.”

And the messages in that history might just resonate with today’s urban homesteaders.

“People want to get outdoors … and the small farms home gives them that opportunity,” Ross H. Gast told an audience of San Diegans in 1933. “It is a good home in good and bad times and a place to save earnings with an incidental production of food supply.” The writer–an editor at the Los Angeles Times’ Farm and Garden Magazine and El Monte resident–had long advocated for the “small farm lifestyle,” a return-to-the-land movement that stretched back to the turn of the century. “The way I see it, the small farm home is not just a piece of property but a mode of living, one that is being adopted generally in Southern California,” he noted.

Reft identifies a key component of the movement: the notion that homes held value for their productive ability. In terms of the region’s current real estate market, this has implications we might consider.

“For many working class homeowners in and around Los Angeles, the home held value productively rather than speculatively. Wage laborers, clerks, and even underpaid professionals by day, residents augmented their income with small acreage food cultivation. In suburbs like South Gate, working and middle class homeowners built their own bungalows and planted their own gardens as much out of economic necessity as any pretense to lifestyle or any hope of improving financial portfolios. As a federal official would tell the public in 1934, the hope was for the small farm movement to “develop a better standard of living and increase the security of families by eliminating their complete dependence on a paycheck.”

An absolutely fascinating read. Follow on Twitter @TropicsM.


Related Links:

A history of school gardens…and how the model is getting a boost today from FoodCorps

Urban ag in Los Angeles has the potential to grow

Stars and Stripes wrote about World War I gardens