Editor’s Note: The UC Food Observer is excited to feature a guest post from Rachel Surls. You may have read my Q&A with Rachel, in which we discussed a newly released book she’s co-authored with UC Master Gardener Judith Gerber. From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles details the rise and fall (and rise?) of agriculture in Los Angeles County (the nation’s leading agricultural producer for several decades). More than 150 vintage images accompany the thoughtful narrative. 

Several months ago, my colleague Rose Hayden Smith and I signed on to do a November 17 presentation titled “Rural Urban Tensions and the Historical Precedence” at the annual meeting of the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts. We didn’t realize how timely this topic would become by mid-November, with the results of the days-old presidential election starkly divided between cities and rural communities, a gap the New York Times called “a growing urban-rural split.”

Our talk about history now seemed especially relevant, because this urban-rural divide is nothing new. It’s part of America’s past, as well as its present, a chasm that has manifested itself with regularity here in California. We shared some of our favorite historical images that explored division—and sometimes bridge-building – between population centers and agricultural communities.

The images below were some I selected, specific to Los Angeles and its relationship to rural communities. With my co-author Judith Gerber, I recently wrote about Los Angeles County’s former role as an agricultural powerhouse in From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles. As a case study, Los Angeles provides countless examples of urban-rural tensions, and the ways that rural and urban people have sometimes bridged the divide.



1927. The No Name Canyon siphon of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, dynamited by Owens Valley residents angry that their farms dried up as water was diverted to Los Angeles. Source: Los Angeles Public Library.


The photo we most often see of the Los Angeles Aqueduct captures its opening in November, 1913, as crowds gathered to watch water cascading into the dry San Fernando Valley, when water czar William Mulholland famously said, “There it is. Take it.” This 1927 photo, however, speaks of a different reality, the resentment that grows when resources are extracted from rural communities to benefit urban dwellers. More than a century after the Los Angeles Aqueduct was built, resentment among Owens Valley residents still festers, and with good reason. Lack of water has limited the local economy, damaged ecosystems, and created an ongoing problem with dust storms.



1942. Braceros on their way to Los Angeles. Source: University of California, Los Angeles.

Both urban and rural communities in California have historically marginalized each major group of immigrant farm workers, from Chinese, to Japanese, to Mexican immigrants. Given that many farm labor jobs are seasonal, there has often been tension between urban and rural, as farm workers have often lived in urban areas between jobs harvesting crops in rural areas. During difficult economic times, the larger population has often turned on the immigrant population, launching campaigns of deportation, discriminatory laws and other hostile tactics. For example, in the 1930s, “repatriation” campaigns around the country sent Mexicans and Mexican Americans (including thousands of legal residents and U.S. citizens) to Mexico, as white Americans scapegoated them for Depression-era hardship. (Read this NPR piece for more information).

Los Angeles County was at the center of this repatriation movement, and decades later, in 2012, officials issued a formal apology for the county’s role. But just three years after the Depression and its deportation campaigns ended, with wartime farm labor shortages on the rise, the federal government created the Bracero Program to bring a new labor force to America’s farms from rural Mexico. Many Braceros worked on Los Angeles area farms, especially its citrus ranches.

Editor’s Note: Read the UC Food Observer interview with Mario Sifuentez, who has collected oral histories of those who participated in the Bracero program in the Pacific Northwest.

malathionprotestatlahallofadmin2lapl1984. Activist Ida Honoroff leads protest against aerial malathion spraying at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration. Source: Los Angeles Public Library.

Residents in Los Angeles County bitterly resented 1980s aerial spraying campaigns to control Medfly, an invasive pest with the potential to devastate California’s farms. The pest first gained a toehold in urban communities, and from there it could easily spread to farms. At night, helicopters flew over Los Angeles neighborhoods, spraying the sticky mist containing the insecticide. Urban residents questioned the safety of malathion despite the assurances of state and local officials that it was not harmful to humans. The ongoing battle over aerial spraying led several Los Angeles County cities to sue California’s Department of Food and Agriculture.



1981. Shoppers on opening day at Santa Monica Farmers Market Source: Los Angeles Public Library.

Farmers markets have been one means of bridging the gap between agricultural communities and urban consumers. In the late 1970s, California regulations changed so that farmers could sell directly to consumers, sparking the growth of markets around the state. They were a hit with farmers and consumers alike, along with chefs. A handful of markets around Los Angeles County have grown to well over a hundred today, allowing consumers to purchase the freshest produce, and get to know farmers on a personal basis.



1989. National Dairy Month at a Vons Market in Burbank. Source: Los Angeles Public Library.

Like many producers across the nation, California farmers have worried about the level of knowledge of agriculture among urban residents. Will urban dwellers, who constitute the majority of the state’s voters, have the capacity to make good decisions about policy as it relates to agriculture? The agricultural community has often strived to provide educational opportunities for city residents, most often geared towards children, such as this National Dairy Month activity, and the California Agriculture in the Classroom Program.


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About Rachel Surls: Rachel is the Sustainable Food Systems Advisor for University of California Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County. [The above hyperlink will also connect you to Rachel’s research bibliography]. Cooperative Extension is part of the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. As part of her role with UC ANR, Rachel is leading a team that is studying urban agriculture in California, assessing needs, developing educational resources and providing best practice recommendations for urban agriculture policy at the municipal level. Her work – part of UC’s Global Food Initiative – is playing an important part in helping UC address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population.81711-RachelSurls

Rachel is also a member of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council and has been actively engaged in working with the City of Los Angeles to develop urban agriculture policy. Rachel joined UCCE in 1988 and has provided leadership for the local Master Gardener Program, supporting school, home and community gardening in the Los Angeles area. She earned her B.S. in agronomy at Virginia Tech, an M.S. in Agricultural Sciences at Cal Poly, Pomona and a Ph.D. in Education from Claremont Graduate University. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer.