Digging the Dirt on an L.A. Farm

The novel coronavirus magnifies everything about nature and the material world, revealing both threat and benefit. So go ahead: start a tray of tomato seedlings in the kitchen window.

A photo of Angeles skyline and the author's farm (just to the left of blue truck) from a hilltop in Glassell Park.
A view of the author’s farm (center, to the left of blue truck) from a hilltop in Glassell Park, with the Los Angeles skyline in the distance.

The new virus suddenly makes the material world very real. We worry about being around other people, what we’ve touched, what we’ll eat. Nature is no longer a pretty backdrop but an all-powerful agent of life and death, a beautiful menace. I feel the threat too, so I spend more time on our farm, crawling across the soil on my hands and knees. Weeding feels like something I can do, a gesture of humility, an offering. It’s a way to keep my mind together.

I bang the soil off the roots of mallow and prickly lettuce as I toss them aside, crawl a few inches, and stab with my digging knife. It’s April in Los Angeles, so the air flowing over the hills still bears traces of jasmine and box tree and lemon blossoms, but down here close to the ground it’s the living musk of arugula in flower and mustard greens and sweet manure compost and fava beans. My naked fingers are bloodied by wirelike strands of Bermuda grass and burn with the venom of stinging nettle, and when I pull a radish by mistake, I sit up, wipe it on my filthy shirt, and eat it. 

That is the point, after all: to eat. My wife, Lauri, and I grow organic produce and flowers on a leased acre in Glassell Park, a neighborhood hung from steep hills in Northeast L.A., and because we feed people, the place is in our heads day and night. That was true even before any pandemic, but we’re crazy aware of it now. It wakes us up at 3:30 a.m. thinking about the extraordinarily dry winter, about deliveries, about an invasion of wild oats, about gophers and slugs and opportunistic towhees, about whether a just-weeded row can go to a summer vegetable like beans (it can). We experience nature as a communicative order. It demands our attention.

And now the whole world has joined us. Because of the virus, we are all having this experience, together, at once: nature is talking to everyone in the voice of COVID-19, its message amplified by the media and fear and pure practicality.

Writer Dean Kuipers inspects a crop of borage, arugula, radishes, mustard greens, turnips, and other cool-season crops.

We’d all love to tune it out—this virus is one aspect of nature we want to avoid. But it’s not a bad thing to let nature have your undivided attention for a few days, especially in L.A., where the media dominates our consciousness. Hold on, you think suddenly, I hope someone is still growing food. That’s the land talking, and Los Angeles is a great place to have this sobering thought because, of course, we see few farms here. But Los Angeles is actually a farm town. In fact, for a long time, L.A. County was the biggest agricultural producer in the nation.

Yes, bigger than counties in Iowa or Kansas or other places we think of as slathered in crops. For the four decades between 1909 and 1949, Los Angeles was the “top farm county in the United States,” according to Rachel Surls and Judith Gerber’s book, From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles. It’s a 20th-century detail that upends our understanding of this place, but it probably explains why the land wakes some of us up at night.

Spanish missionary Father Juan Crespí, traveling with the 1769 Portolá expedition, described the area we know as the L.A. Basin, writing, “All the soil is black and loamy, and is capable of producing every kind of grain and fruit which may be planted.” What started as sprawling cattle ranches very quickly became wheat fields and vineyards and orchards of citrus and olives. Downtown L.A. was once a rainbow patchwork of vegetable fields, and the alluvial muck of Venice put it in the running to be the so-called Celery Capital of the World. In the early 1800s, long before Napa or Sonoma, Los Angeles was California’s wine country. 

The L.A. Chamber of Commerce traded on this reputation, luring folks westward in the early 20th century not with dreams of stardom or beach leisure but with “small farm homes” of one to three acres where they could grow food. Who didn’t want an orange tree in their yard? The throngs who responded came to work the land. When I lived in Del Rey, along Ballona Creek, one of my elderly Japanese neighbors told me that before my house was built, in 1947, the property was a bean field.

Farms have always been the point. City administrators now recognize that some local production is a good idea, to bolster our food security, but it has a mixed record of support. South Central Farm, a community garden covering two city blocks in South L.A., was tended by an estimated 350 Latino families, some growing rare Mesoamerican heritage grains and fruits, until it was bulldozed in 2006 because of a property dispute. I interviewed Joan Baez as she sat in a tree singing protest songs, trying to stop the demolition. Today the lots sit empty and forlorn. In 2013, California passed Assembly Bill 551, the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, which gives tax breaks to city dwellers growing food on their property, and L.A. passed its own version of that law in 2017. However, of 8,000 known eligible lots in the city, only a handful have actually been planted. The local measure obviously needs to be reconfigured.

The story is much the same all over the country, and the present coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to revisit our relationship to the land. Our newly restored awareness of the material world is creating a hunger for more contact with the soil. There has been a run on local plant nurseries. Seed companies can’t keep up with demand. Obviously, people are thinking about their future meals, but there’s more to it than that.

Growing food is a radical act. As an adjective, the word radical means “proceeding from roots.” To grow food is to directly experience our relatedness to a living planet. Our human minds are adapted to eating and surviving here, alongside all the other-than-human minds. It is relatedness that calls to me in the predawn with news of a dry wind or a bad virus. My mind craves that communication—which is why I love being among all these voices on the farm—and so does yours. It’s the calling we were born to answer, the manual we were born to read. To lose that communication is to lose part of your mind.

Fava bean plants in bloom on Dean Kuipers’s farm in Northeast L.A.

A lot of us crave an experience with empirical, veridical reality. I was in a CVS buying medical tape to wrap my fingers, and the clerk, upon hearing why my hands were all torn up, said, “My God, I want to do that. That must feel so good.” She clenched one of her hands with the other. It reminded me that I needed rubbing alcohol and gloves and tweezers. People are absolutely desperate to get their hands in that dirt. My wife’s email in-box is spilling over with messages from potential farm volunteers; they offer to sling manure, to weed, to do anything. 

“I just want to put my hands in the dirt and think about plants,” said one of our friends, showing up to weed a while back, before the Safer at Home order. “I need to do something real.” She is a talented elementary school teacher, which is as real as it gets. What she meant was that she wanted to reconnect to the basic life processes. They can’t be mediated or deep-faked. I can put up a photo of gorgeous arugula on Instagram, but if I can’t actually eat it, I starve. 

Not everyone is going to work on a farm during this outbreak, of course; that wouldn’t even be safe. But let’s turn this confrontation with the real into an acknowledgment of how much we depend on the land. The same scientific community that is tracking the spread of this virus and telling you how to protect yourself from it has been telling you for decades about climate change, about the loss of biodiversity, about the long-term food insecurity inherent to chemical mega-farming. When I asked poet and farmer Wendell Berry about those big emergencies a couple of years back, he wrote to me, “What our understanding of nature tells us is that the big problems can only be solved by small solutions, unrelentingly practical.” The same small, unrelentingly practical actions you’re taking to save your skin right now are what’s needed to address those other emergencies, too. You’re proving right now that you can do them.

Here’s a first step: when your Netflix binge ends, start some tomato or pepper seedlings in your kitchen window. Growing your own food is not just for eating; it’s an act of reconnection. It’s spring, and the time is now. Order seeds online and prepare yourself; once they sprout, those seedlings will get downright chatty about their needs: water, sun, transplant to a pot on the balcony, maybe a splash or two of seaweed emulsion. The meaning of life is to live. Any tomato knows that. And now we’re all listening.

Dean Kuipers is the author of The Deer Camp, a memoir about nature and how it healed his family, and the coauthor with Lauri Kranz of A Garden Can Be Anywhere. He reviewed Alta California for Alta, Fall 2019.

Dean Kuipers’s most recent books are a memoir, The Deer Camp, and, with his wife, Lauri Kranz, the how-to A Garden Can Be Anywhere.
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