Farming Under the Wire A father and son operate an urban farm, but experience some hardships in the process.

Bell Gardens, CA— Where the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers meet, under the Edison electrical line that runs alongside the Los Angeles River, swaths of brown one story homes and gray industrial buildings are disrupted by patches of green. These gardens sit on land that cannot be built upon because of the towering wires that block the space above. As a result, some plots under the line are used for urban farms.

Edgar Ornelas and his father, Jose Luis Ornelas, start their days ready to cultivate the earth.

Far from a peaceful setting, the Ornelas farm is surrounded by streets packed with traffic. The whooshing sound of cars is accompanied by the occasional loud drone of a plane. Above them, the buzz of an immense, gray electric tower can be heard.

Edgar Ornelas, left, and father Jose Luis Ornelas, right, carry baskets of produce to load their truck in preparation for the next day's farmers market.

They begin at dawn and spend the day cutting, harvesting and packing herbs, vegetables and fruits on their concealed acre of land in preparation for a farmers market.

“It’s not a job for me because I just get up and do it,” Edgar said. “I know the money is there, and I am happy for it, but money only goes so far.”

The chilly 5 a.m. mornings are rough, and their worked hands are rougher, but there isn’t much else Edgar would rather be doing.

Edgar and Jose work quietly throughout the noisy day until the mud cakes their blue jeans and black rubber boots and Edgar’s clean Dodgers sweatshirt is peppered with shallots and cilantro stems.

They live the lives of traditional farmers, but unlike most farmers, the backdrop for their urban farming operation is not endless acres of greenery. It is the bustling, urban city of Bell Gardens.

Urban farming was not the original way the pair began growing. When Jose lived in Jalisco, Mexico, he maintained a more traditional farm filled with animals and flourishing space. There, everyone Edgar knew was a farmer. Bringing the practice to California was a way for his dad to bring a part of Mexico with him.

The Ornelas family moved to California when Edgar was a young boy in 1998 and years later, Jose established a small plot of land under an Edison electrical line that runs parallel to sections of the Los Angeles River. The land was empty because the wires above made it impossible to build up. As a result, Jose grew under the wire.

Edgar joined his father around two years ago, after losing parts of his fingers during an accident as a mechanic. It gave him the push to move toward farming with his father.

Jose Luis Ornelas cuts cilantro at their Bell Gardens family farm.

“That’s it,” Edgar said. “I don’t want to make other people richer when I could just be here helping my dad. It just clicked with me.”

Now, the two-man operation sells flowering dandelions, fragrant cilantro and flavorful spinach among other produce, in a number of surrounding cities by participating in local farmers markets such as the Long Beach Bixby Knolls market on Tuesdays. They also use their produce to sustain their own families.

According to Ken Pellman, public information officer for the Agricultural Commissioner, agriculture in the Los Angeles County has been at a decrease. Before 1950, the county had the highest agricultural production in the United States.

“After 1950, the population growth post-World War II meant you had more factories, more housing, more business, and so the farming went elsewhere,” Pellman said.

However, Pellman said urban farming and gardening is something the agricultural commissioner's office has been seeing more of in the county. These small farms accommodate the lack of space in Los Angeles. And under utility lines, they are far more common.

“I think it’s easier for these places to stay when they're in these [utility] right-of-ways,” Pellman said. “Because in other places what will often happen is the land will be sold for development, and you’re not going to have that problem under the power lines.”

In recent years however, Edgar has faced a number of challenges to their family business. This includes lack of open space to lease, rising water bills and most of all, the potential that Southern California Edison can stop them from growing their produce in a traditional manner.

“Edison told us that they didn’t want anything grown on the floor,” Edgar said. “They just want potted [plants].”

Edgar said that not much can be grown in pots and the money they would lose would be detrimental to their business. He acknowledged that farms around him had gone out of business, and for a while, they thought they would lose their farm too.

“We were kind of stressed for a while,” Edgar said. “But I think we got the new contract … We signed the thing and they said it was OK, so we’re waiting for what they’re going to say. But I think we did get [our farm], for a couple more years.”

Although they are unsure of whether or not they can keep the farm for much longer, they appreciate that Edison lets them lease the land in the first place.

According to Pellman, utility companies lease their land because there’s not much they can do on it. But there are still reasons they might want to take the land back.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of they want to use the land for storage or something like that and they want to take it back,” Pellman said. “It’s up to the utility.”

Edgar Ornelas, 33, sells produce at the Bixby Park farmers market every Tuesday.

For Edgar, despite the challenges, the best part about urban farming is the people he meets during his trips to the farmers market. He enjoys seeing people get excited about locally-sourced food.

“They get a little reaction,” Edgar said.“‘Oh we’ve never seen that before,’ ‘Oh that looks nice,’ ‘Is that the way it’s supposed to look?’... we surprise people and they find something new.”

There is also a sense of community that comes with the job. Neighbors and friends come over to the Ornelas farm to swipe some sweet-smelling cilantro or chop up some bok-choy from the ground. At community markets, people and other growers stop to chat with the Ornelas men. Edgar enjoys the sense of camaraderie.

“Sometimes they have some cool stories,” Edgar said. “You meet some nice people. They make you laugh.”

Edgar said that farming has always been a part of his and his family’s life and is happy with the life that the Ornelas family has built for themselves. He hopes that the small acre will sustain them far into the future.

“This is my way of living,” Edgar said. “My family too ... this is the reason we live right here. You could say my whole life revolves around farming.”
Story by Paula Kiley, Hannah Getahun & Austin Brumblay


Austin Brumblay

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