LOS ANGELES — Down a dusty road surrounded by orange trees and the rolling hills of Redlands, the farmer in a battered straw hat and worn jeans worked his land, just as his father and grandfather and great-grandfather did before him.
Bob Knight remembers pulling weeds from the soil almost before he could read. He was 6 and could barely reach the pedals when he first steered a truck, then began picking and packing the fruit, and checking drip-irrigation systems.
Now 54, lanky and long, Knight tends 67 acres bursting with thousands of orange trees bearing sweet Valencias and seedless navels, knobby Gold Nuggets and deep red Moros.
But on this warm January afternoon, this man whose family has painstakingly cultivated citrus for more than 100 years was planting cauliflowers.
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Knight is fighting to save his family’s livelihood and the farming heritage of Redlands — a city so named for the deep red earth that once produced the nation’s largest crop of navel oranges.
And his unlikely ally in the high-stakes gamble is the Los Angeles Unified School District.
In an effort to support local farmers and bring more healthful food to schoolchildren, the nation’s second-largest school system has pledged to take whatever high-quality produce Knight and others in his 31-member local farming alliance can grow.
The timing couldn’t be better: Knight and other farmers around the world are battling a pest that carries bacteria that is fatal to citrus. The Asian citrus psyllid, an insect the size of an aphid, has been found in all four of the nation’s major citrus-producing states and eight Southern California counties. The deadly Huanglongbing disease spread by the pest has also arrived, in 2012.
The Visalia, Calif.-based Citrus Research Program proclaimed the disease a death sentence for a $2-billion industry that produces 80 percent of the nation’s fresh market oranges and 87 percent of its lemons.
Knight fears that it is only a matter of time before his trees become infected. So he’s hedging his bets by turning to vegetables.
L.A. Unified’s commitment, Knight said, significantly minimizes the risk of investing more than $100,000 in new equipment and other necessities for what he called a major cultural shift from fruits to vegetables.
“What makes this possible is knowing there will be an institutional partner,” Knight said. The district “gives us that stability that makes this whole transition more feasible and less stressful.”
He paused, looking out at his trees as wispy white clouds cast shadows over the dust-colored canyons.
“They should rename this area LAUSD,” he said.
The partnership between L.A. Unified and Knight’s alliance of San Bernardino County farmers began two years ago, brokered by Sean Leer of Gold Star Foods Inc., a school food distributor.
Leer and David Binkle, L.A. Unified’s food-services director, were charged with carrying out the Los Angeles Board of Education’s 2012 directive to buy more school food from producers within 200 miles of the city, with 5 percent of produce specifically from small- to medium-sized farms.
The district became Los Angeles’ second institution — city government being the first — to pledge to support local purchasing in a “good food” program developed by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Besides oranges, the district has shifted to sustainably grown wheat from Fresno rather than the Midwest, and beef from Chino instead of Cincinnati, among other purchases.
Even before the pest arrived in 2008, Knight’s orange business was struggling. As trees age, the fruit becomes sweeter but smaller — less suitable for the retail market, he said, which demands large oranges. At the same time, the growing domination of the industry by highly efficient agricultural conglomerates such as Sunkist and foreign competitors in Australia, Chile, Spain and South Africa were driving down prices.
But Binkle and Leer, scouring the region for local producers, discovered Knight and began placing orders that doubled his alliance’s business overnight, taking half their orange crop for the district’s 600,000-plus daily meals. Last year, the farmers sold more than $171,000 of oranges to L.A. Unified through Leer.
Knight credits the deal with single-handedly keeping a quarter of his farmers in business.
“It changed our world,” he said. “Without (L.A. Unified), some of the growers would have poked along and eventually sold out.”
Now Binkle and Leer have begun discussing vegetables with Knight: Persian cucumbers, cauliflower, kale and fingerling potatoes. Leer said the district would work with the farmers to ensure high quality and a fair price.
“We’ve committed to this journey,” Leer said. “As soon as they tell us what they can do well, we’re committed to carrying this through to the child’s plate. We try to eliminate the risk so they can be confident that they’ll get a return on whatever they put in the ground.”
Growing the gospel
Now Knight is an agricultural evangelist of sorts, spreading the gospel of local farming to secure its future. He and his alliance have launched a program, oldgrovefarmshare.com, which delivers weekly boxes of locally grown produce. The farmers also regularly visit schools as part of a national movement to educate students about the importance of locally grown food.
During a recent visit to L.A. Unified’s Castlebay Lane Charter School in Porter Ranch, Knight donned his straw hat and regaled more than 700 students throughout the day with stories about his farm, his dogs and the “superpowers” of vegetables. Beets to help stop bleeding. Carrots to see better. Cucumbers to fill you up without making you fat.
Then he invited each student to choose three items from the farmers market he had set up.
Akasha Dukkipati, 7, chose a carrot, a cucumber and a beet. “I bleed a lot, so I’m going to eat this beet instead of wear a Band-Aid,” she said.