Back to the Ranch

Ranch photo from the Huntington’s Ranch blog.

I’ve never had so much fun at a symposium as I did at the Huntington’s urban agriculture blow-out this weekend. The two day event launched the Huntington’s new experimental urban agricultural station known as the “Ranch” and featured a diverse bunch of speakers. The Ranch will provide much needed information on edible landscapes and food forestry, particularly for those of us in the southwest. Designed by Scott Kleinrock, the Ranch, with its combination of fruit trees, intensive vegetable plantings and California natives is already stunning–by next year it will be a paradise. The Ranch has a blog at

Some highlights from the symposium after the jump:

Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local FoodAuthor Gary Nabhan presented “Adapting Food Production to a Hotter, Drier World: Using Agricultural Stations to Train Future Farmers.” Nabhan stressed the dire situation those of us living in arid climates face with climate change and the importance of experimental stations such as the Ranch in figuring out next steps. You can read some of Nabhan’s articles on his website at

Dr. Susan Mulley of Cal Poly Pomona presented the results of her research in a surprisingly engaging and amusing lecture, “Are Vegetables Private?” and Other Questions: Belief and Perception and Their Impacts on Urban Agriculture.” Mulley’s work involves surveying the general public and landscaping professionals on their aesthetic likes and dislikes. The data she presented during the lecture involved perceptions of residential and institutional edible and native landscapes. Not surprisingly, the general public tends to favor landscapes that are orderly and neat while landscape professionals are more comfortable with “wildness.” The take-away for me is that those of us in the “urban farm” movement need to be more cognizant of aesthetics. As Mulley put it, most people prefer landscapes that show, “the human touch.” I think it would be best to work with that human touch rather than fight it.

Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms told the story of her journey to make a living as an urban farmer growing and selling cut flowers. Kolla began by emphasising something most people don’t know, that most cut flowers you buy at markets are drenched in pesticides. Kolla’s entrepreneurial efforts were soon thwarted by NIMBY neighbors whose complaints to local inspectors resulted in the birth of the Urban Farming Advocates. The UFA went on to craft, along with the city’s planning department, the “Food and Flowers Freedom Act” which made it legal in the city of Los Angeles to grow fruits, nuts and flowers and resell them.

Kelly and I spoke next in a rambling and bizarre lecture that involved vegetables, barefoot running and humanure among other topics. Kelly kept things on track, as usual, and headed off my tendency towards pretentious quotes. I did get to use my favorite Marshall McCluhan saying, “If you don’t like that idea, I’ve got others.”

Darren Butler presented a talk entitled, “Food Forestry and Living Systems” that echoed Nabhan’s call for for food forestry research in our arid climate. I’m looking forward to taking Butler’s grafting workshop this winter.

Edible LandscapingThe day concluded with a dazzling presentation by Rosalind Creasy whose groundbreaking book Edible Landscaping has just been updated. As Mulley’s research proves, if we want to get more folks to replace their lawns with more useful plants we’ve also got to pay attention to aesthetics. Creasy, through her gardens and writing, has proven that useful and beautiful can be one and the same. My other thought on hearing Creasy’s lecture is that perhaps we’d be better off not using the phrase “urban farming.” “Edible landscaping” or “edible landscapes” would be more accurate and less likely to bring up bad associations some people have with agriculture.

I’ve left out a lot of details on this amazing conference and may write a few more blog posts to unpack what I learned. Congratulations to the hard working staff of the Huntington for pulling off an auspicious debut for the Ranch.

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  1. Thanks for this post and link. Rosiland Creasy first got me interested in edible landscaping way back when her book first came out. I read your blog regularly and love what you are doing.

  2. Agree, sounds fabulous. This is such a huge topic, doubt that a single weekend even begins to cover it all. Here, since I’m swimming upstream against my husband’s ideas of aesthetics, am slowly turning my medicinal herbals into our “flower” gardens that are in the front for the neighbors to see. In the back, were only those who are interested, is the veggie garden. A serious WOW factor from everyone who sees it has helped my husband appreciate my efforts a bit more. Now if I can only get him to let me have chickens. . .

  3. You two were awesome. If I hadn’t stumbled upon your blog a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have known about the conference, and wouldn’t have gotten the chance to hear you (and so many wonderful others) speak.

    A friend and I drove up from San Diego and we are both so glad we did. I noticed that the conference (we only went on Saturday) was very L.A.-centric and I could sense the pride that each person has in his or her accomplishments in their respective neighborhoods. It’s nice to see and hear. There are times when it seems as if this particular community is only an online community. But being surrounded by like-minded local folks who actually WANT backyard chickens and composting toilets was a real boost.
    Change is afoot (and apparently, it’s barefoot)!

  4. Thanks, Teresa!

    And Lunafrijol – thank you, too! Are you the person I met while making my desperate dash to the coffee wagon? It’s fantastic you made the drive–I agree, it was worth the miles in my book–such a great group of speakers on both days.

    Regarding community, LA (and environs–Altadena, Clairemont, etc.) is doing really good things right now–and it’s so funny, because it’s so unexpected. Everyone thinks this place is a hell hole, but there’s a lot of good stuff going on, edgy stuff, committed stuff.

  5. I agree, you two were both hilarious and informative and provided the audience with valuable tips and information.

    My head has been spinning after attending both days and I am trying to find time to write about the event, ideas and The Ranch of course!

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