Of chenopods and corn: agriculture along the Los Angeles River, both then and now
July 27, 2016 § 5 Comments
In the very early days of agriculture in the Los Angeles basin, the seasonal flooding of the Los Angeles River was intimately connected with the possibility of agriculture. Farmers welcomed flood-deposited silt. It made stuff grow. The agriculture of then grew out of the river of then.
The agriculture of now also deserves to be discussed in the context of the LA River, though it may require some serious visionary thinking to draw out the possibilities of this connection. Some have suggested the idea of community gardens along the river. Maybe in the near future. But let’s not forget that in the river as it currently stands, there are already all sorts of useful or edible plants that grow profusely without labor, chemicals, or other inputs. What can we learn from those plants?
Last of all, how can we put together the past and present to envision ways in which sustainable local food production might intersect with the Los Angeles River of the future?
At L.A. River Expeditions‘ Sepulveda Basin tour this past Sunday, kayak guide Gary Golding talked about useful wild plants currently found along the LA river channel, such as cattails, castor bean, wild mustards… Some of these plants are exotics and some are natives. Some are edible, and others are used medicinally. But what they all have in common is that they grow profusely and unapologetically, without the help of chemicals, irrigation, or the human hand, in any place suitable to their needs. This includes right in the Los Angeles River channel, where they thrive beneath a lush canopy of native willows. So why not learn what they are and learn how to use them?
Gary talked a long time about cattails. Parts of the plant can be processed into flour. Other parts can be eaten like celery. The pollen can be used in several different ways, and is considered to have healthful properties. This is just a brief capsule of one of the many plants he talked about.
My own talk started with the agriculture of then. Believe it or not, in the early days of (European) settlement in the basin, the soil in many valley areas of Los Angeles used to retain enough moisture to allow for farming without irrigation— this is called dry farming. Ludwig Louis Salvator wrote in 1876 of the “tablelands” of Los Angeles, that properly prepared soil could produce “nine good annual harvests out of ten, without irrigation, of castor oil beans, Indian corn, barley, alfalfa, potatoes, and various kinds of vegetables.”
At that time, the LA Basin was only sparsely developed. In that big open basin, plant roots and plant litter facilitated the soaking of water into the ground. Imagine about 50% of all rainfall ending up stored in the ground (California Water & Land Use Partnership), moving slowly downward through soil with the help of gravity, where it eventually joins the water table. In those days, rain moving slowly underground would have eventually re-emerged into one of the many streams, marshes, ponds, or wetlands in the LA River basin.
Though flooding did occur during the rainy season, it was different from the sudden devastating flooding of the early-mid 1900s– the flood stories we often hear about tend to be mostly from this specific period in history. This pop mythology about the river focusses on the kind of flooding that worsened in severity after houses and roads had already replaced the vegetation that had helped the ground behave like a sponge; the kind of devastating flooding that eventually prompted the channelization of the river into a thick bed of concrete… That kind of destructive flooding was still unknown. In the earliest days, rather, flooding was to be respected, but it also included the happy possibility that the river would deposit rich silt over the land, sometimes in layers several feet deep. Farmers loved this silt. The oral histories collected by Reagan in 1914 include many in which farmers praise the flood-deposited silt.
It was not necessary to fertilize the land, as they are now doing. They raised 100 bushels of corn to the acre, but not now. In those days a crop of corn and California pumpkins were raised on the same land. Those pumpkins would grow so thick that it was difficult to walkaround and step between them, while it was an easy matter to go all over the place and never step on the ground, stepping on the pumpkins. The largest I ever saw weighed 214 pounds, and on our place we raised one that weighed 206 pounds. (Proctor, from Reagan)
These stories might sound fantastical, but in his book on the Los Angeles River, Blake Gumprecht credits river-deposited soils as the reason Los Angeles County was “the most productive agricultural county in the United States until the 1950s.”
Contrast that to our current situation (call it the well-drained city), where 61% of the non-mountainous portions of the city of Los Angeles is covered by impervious surfaces, the hard surfaces like paving and roofs that prevent water from soaking into the ground (McPherson et al, 2008). Water moves very quickly over those hard surfaces, and is funneled into an elaborate network of stormdrains that transports captured rainfall as efficiently as possible into the ocean, rather than allowing it to soak into the ground where it might be replenishing aquifers, streams, and rivers.
On undeveloped land (this depends on slope, soil, vegetation cover, and other factors), one might expect 10% of rainfall to become surface runoff. In urbanized areas, about 55% of rain falling on the ground can become runoff that ends up in storm drains (California Water & Land Use Partnership). It is ironic that the finely networked stormdrain system that culminates in the Los Angeles River flood control channel really functions to dispose of the water that otherwise would be creating our streams. (This is why any river restoration that focusses only on the main channel without touching the network of tributaries higher up in the watershed might look good, but is essentially an end-of-pipe solution– it will not have a large impact on the river’s hydrology– it will certainly not help the river capture more water.) With precipitation disposed of so efficiently, the landscape of the Los Angeles basin is now so well-drained that the idea of growing vegetable crops without artificial irrigation, even in the ‘table lands,’ might seem fantastical.
What about the agriculture of now? As I spoke, some kayakers pointed out a field of corn planted right in Sepulveda Basin, near our trip’s starting point.
I had to investigate. Rows of corn were planted neatly, but the stalks were wan and thin. The plants on the edge of the field were dried. Maybe irrigation had just recently ceased. I was surprised to see that the plant that gave the field a dark green color from a distance was actually a species that appeared to have volunteered. This plant, growing far more prolifically than the intended crop, appeared to be some sort of chenopod.
Chenopods are members of the family, Chenopodiaceae. Most Angelenos are familiar with the commercially appealing chenopods available at grocery stores: spinach, beets, chard. More adventurous eaters might know of quinoa or epazote. Many of us may not know that a whole array of edible chenopod species actually grow prolifically without chemicals or artificial irrigation, in pretty much any untended patch of soil in our urban environment. These cousins of spinach, beets, chard, and quinoa grow wild throughout urbanized Los Angeles. Chenopods were common table greens before their cultivated cousin, spinach, took over in popularity. The most well known of the wild chenopods is called Lambs-quarters. Its leaves are high in vitamins A, C, B-complex vitamins, and calcium (Henderson, 2000) and compare very favorably to spinach.
In this field right above the Los Angeles River’s concrete channel, volunteer chenopods outnumbered the intended crop. I estimated that the biomass in this field was about 80% chenopod, and 20% corn. Though it appeared that the field was no longer irrigated, the chenopods continued to thrive in the same hot sun that was thoroughly frying the corn plants.
This made me remember some numbers that I once learned from Philip Stark of Berkeley Food Institute:
Up to 40% of biomass produced on organic farms in the Bay Area are plants considered to be weeds (Miguel Altieri)
11 out of 15 of the top agricultural weeds in the Bay Area are edible plant species (based on a list by Altieri and Pallud)
If 40% of the biomass produced by organic agriculture consists of unused volunteer plants, these figures suggest that even much of what is called organic farming can hardly be described as sustainable, unless we find some way to harvest and use that extra 40% of biomass… This might mean we learn to call weeds what they are– edible plants (which means we need to shift our cultural idea of what food should taste like and where it can come from)– or we learn to re-create agriculture in a more ecological manner, where no waste is created, where everything produced feeds back into the system. Imagine a reconfigured food-producing urban landscape system where the outputs are equal to the inputs. Instead of importing water to irrigate crops, we plant climate-appropriate food plants where we know moisture already collects. We learn to appreciate the taste of things that grow easily and naturally in our climate and local soil. This could be a sustainable agriculture.
Is there a way to harness the cycles of the river to produce climate-appropriate food plants?
I love this unusual solution combining flood control with agriculture as suggested by O. E. Elftman in James Reagan’s 1914 collection of interviews. By the time of these interviews, the Los Angeles basin was becoming densely developed and seasonal flooding had become devastating in magnitude. Elftman’s ideas for flood control include a very very wide river channel (much wider than the current channel) whose banks are stabilized with carefully chosen vegetation instead of concrete. The most unexpected part is that he proposes seasonal agriculture right in the river channel itself, suggesting that well-chosen crops can be grown and harvested in counterpoint to the seasonal cycles of river flow:
The right of way for the river should not be less than 1000 feet wide, and then so constructed as to get Nature to assist in the work. A channel of say 500 feet wide then on each side make the banks with easy slopes and plant it all with willows near the water and the low places, and on the top and higher places plant blue gum trees, then salt grass over all that. These banks should be 250 feet wide. In this way they would not wash out; then the channel of the river could be cultivated and put to a crop of potatoes or vegetables, something that would grow a light stalk. There is ample time between the flood season to do this, and be profitable as well. This would keep the bed of the river loosened up and would always scour easier. This channel should be from the mountains to the sea. (Mr. O. E. Elftman, from Reagan, italics mine)
The agriculture of the past had an intimate relationship with the Los Angeles River of the past. However, the undeveloped floodplain of the past is gone. Instead, we have a manufactured hydrology. One in which rainwater is directed into an elaborate system of local drains into a centralized channel which we call a ‘river.’ A significant source of our river water is the huge volume of imported water we use and discard (which makes up 70% of our river’s dry season flow). This water supports a hybrid ecosystem of native as well as exotic plants and wildlife.
Can the future Los Angeles River also have an intimate relationship with local food production? Imagine local food growing as easily as chenopods among the corn, or as prolifically as the cattails and willow that currently thrive along the river. Let’s start that discussion.
Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Henderson, R. K. The Neighborhood Forager: A guide for the wild food gourmet. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2000.
McPherson, E. G., Simpson, J. R., Xiao, Q., & Wu, C. January, 2008. Los Angeles 1-Million Tree Canopy Cover Assessment. US Department of Agriculture Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station General Technical Report PSW-GTR-207.
Reagan, James P. Early Floods in Los Angeles County: Notes by James P. Reagan, County Flood Control Engineer, 1915.
California Water & Land Use Partnership. Water Cycle Facts. http://www.coastal.ca.gov/nps/watercyclefacts.pdf