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].”