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'Farming in Torrance and the South Bay': A look back at L.A.'s farm belt

November 12, 2008 |  6:10 pm

TorranceYou would hardly know it today, when South Bay towns like Torrance and Gardena seem composed of little but suburbs and strip malls, but it wasn't so long ago that this broad, flat plain included some of the choicest agricultural land in California.

Beginning in the 1880s (even before if you count the cattle-running ranchos) and continuing until as recently as the 1950s, there were thriving farms producing strawberries, beans, sugar beets and dairy cattle, among many others.

Torrance author Judith Gerber beautifully captures this history in her new book "Farming in Torrance and the South Bay," part of the wildly popular "Images of America" series run by Arcadia Publishing.

Mining collections of historical photographs at local libraries and museums as well as from the personal stashes of many family members, Gerber has come up with a trove that vividly illustrates the wealth of the area's farms.

Like the rest of the Arcadia books, this one is heavy on photographs -– most of them snapshots, really -– and a little light on text. Most of the information is conveyed in captions. But it makes for a fascinating couple of hours nonetheless.

There's Benjamin Stone Weston, who in 1847 paid the Sepulveda family $525 for 3,000 acres of the old Rancho San Pedro and farmed most of the land between San Pedro and Redondo Beach. And there's Harry Phillips, who worked for the Bixby family before farming on his own -- a tradition his family continued for several generations.

And did you know that the "pony-pack," those light plastic packages that look like ice cube trays containing several different plants, were invented by South Bay grower Bill Mertz?

Full credit is paid to the area's Japanese farmers as well -– the Ishibashis, Takahashis, Ihoris and others who were such a vital part of the area's farm economy. (Ever wonder why there is such a thriving Japanese community along the south end of Western Avenue? It's not just the car companies.)

Judith Gerber’s "Farming in Torrance and the South Bay" is available on Amazon.com and from Arcadia Publishing as well as from many local bookstores.

-- Russ Parsons