I know there are urban farms all over LA, but the last place I would’ve expected to find one was Panorama City. One of the many suburbs that sprang up in the Valley after WWII, the area is a wide, flat expanse of tract homes and strip malls. Initially built in the late 40s, Panorama City was an early experiment in creating a master-planned community, filled largely with pre-fab houses made by Kaiser Homes.
Elliott Kuhn bought this small piece of land near Roscoe Blvd. in 2011, and started Cottonwood Urban Farm (CUF) in 2013. The farm would never have existed had the previous owner done what his neighbors were doing and sold the parcel to developers. Roy Peterson had owned the land since the 60s, and lived in a small house that sat on the back of the lot. It would have been easy for him to take an offer from the investors who were buying up the neighborhood during the last decade, filling the surrounding lots with big, nondescript, stucco boxes. But Peterson didn’t want that to happen to his property, and so when Kuhn approached him about buying the parcel to create an urban farm, he took less than he could’ve gotten elsewhere. The idea appealed to him.
Kuhn had worked for a while as a teacher, and finally decided it wasn’t for him. He put in some time on farms in Austin, and also did a stint with Tree People. Buying the property in Panorama City was the first step toward starting his own farm, but it took a while to get the land in shape. One of the biggest challenges was clearing the property, which involved hauling off 15 tons of trash.
The farm is small, and the layout is compact, so it didn’t take long for Elliott to walk me through it. Toward the back there’s a tiny grove of fruit trees that produce peaches, plums, and nectarines. As we moved toward the front we walked past patches of lettuce, kale, and chard. A crowd of noisy ducks were splashing around in a tiny water hole, and off to one side there were stacks of boxes that serve as bee hives.
The farm gets its name from the giant cottonwood tree that rises high above it. Elliott believes it’s at least a hundred years old. I took a number of photos of the tree, and didn’t get a single image that really captured its beauty, but maybe this one will give you some idea.
Elliott explained that the produce is not certified organic, but he tries to rely on organic principles. Crop diversity and rotation help make the farm sustainable. I asked if he made his living just by farming, and he said no. He’s hoping to eventually make the farm economically self-sustaining by moving into specialty produce that he can sell for a higher profit. Right now he makes ends meet by patching together a few different gigs, including doing presentations for groups and also working as a gardener.
When it was time for me to leave, Elliott opened the front gate and I stepped from the soft soil of the farm back onto the hard pavement that covers so much of suburbia. I walked back down to Roscoe Blvd. where rush hour traffic was speeding past in both directions.
I know there are a lot of good reasons to make farms a part of the urban fabric. They can foster a cleaner environment, reduce CO2 emissions and offer communities healthier food. But besides all that, it seems to me that in a sprawling metropolis like LA, it’s also important just to have a place that’s peaceful and green.
If you want to learn more about Cottonwood Urban Farm, here’s the link.