In my youth there were many oranges. There was the Orange Julius on Ventura Boulevard. There was the book “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch” on my dad’s bookshelf—and my Dad sitting at his desk not far from it, often chomping his favorite fruit: a navel orange. There was the orange tree in front of the Moffett’s house, where we’d pluck the ripe and juicy ones off the lower branches. And there was that line I’d hear time and time again about the San Fernando Valley: “This place used to be orange groves.”
And, for the most part, that’s true.
In 1781, the Spanish established Los Angeles, one of the oldest cities in the Far West, to help colonize the region. For several decades it was the largest center of population in Mexican California. But Mexican settlement and development of California moved slowly—LA developed little real economic or political power during this period. By the time the US took control of California in 1848, LA still had only about 1,600 inhabitants.
As Anglo-Americans took control of California, they gradually broke up the large Hispanic ranches and replaced them with a more diversified farming community. With irrigation, So Cal provided the perfect environment for growing a variety of crops, among them oranges. In the 1870s and 1880s, the new transcontinental railway created all kinds of new moneymaking opportunities. Go west, young men and women, for there is much gold, literally and figuratively. The sun is high, and the living is healthy. Los Angeles became a thriving farming community.
As Los Angeles grew, it subdivided many orchards and pushed orange growers to the outskirts (think the San Fernando Valley and, of course, Orange County). Orchards soon expanded beyond the water supply. Enter one William Mulholland, the Irish-American civil engineer who designed and supervised the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile-long system to move water from Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley, transforming the arid So Cal ecosystem into a green agricultural and residential paradise.
In the mid-1880s, oranges became a major export to the entire US. And Los Angeles exploded. In 1880, just before the first trainload of oranges departed, LA had 11,183 inhabitants. A decade later, the population had ballooned to over 100,000. By 1920, there’d be more than a half-million residents.
All of this is to say that without farming, there’d be no Los Angeles. From 1909 to 1949, Los Angeles County was the top farm county in the US. Farms in LA had influence well beyond the county’s borders. From avocados to citrus to vineyards, several massive California agricultural industries first put down roots in Los Angeles County, helping to push the state into prominence as an epicenter for farming.
Agriculture is still big business in California, the top farm state in the nation. And while it has faded from its glory days, Los Angeles County still makes a contribution to the Golden State’s vast farm productivity.
And the oranges are aplenty—I’m eating the last bite of one as I write this, plucked from a tree in my West LA neighbor’s yard.