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Struggling to Start a Farm in Los Angeles

In 2000, Tara Kolla asked herself a question: Could she start and operate a successful farming business within Los Angeles' city limits? A decade later, she is still trying to find the answer. In the interim 10 years, Kolla established her business, broke even, got shut down, started over, and joined a vibrant organic farming movement in Southern California that fought for its survival all the way to City Hall.

In 2001, Kolla and her husband, an art director in the film industry, bought a home with a half-acre backyard in Silver Lake, a hip L.A. neighborhood northwest of downtown. Kolla, who was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Europe, went back to school to study horticulture, soil science, and landscape design.

Although she originally planned to make a business designing residential gardens for others, Kolla found herself spending more time in her overgrown, debris-strewn backyard. "We had it cleared of ivy and dead plants, and finally I could see the bare bones. It had really good bones," Kolla recalls.

She decided to start farming her own half-acre in 2003. After testing the soil and visiting a local farmers market, Kolla founded a business, Silver Lake Farms, to sell pesticide-free, organic flowers rather than try to compete with established fruit and vegetable vendors, mostly from small farms north of the city. She saw a niche market in fresh, unusual flowers free of the chemicals common in the floral industry, where many flowers come from overseas and must be treated before they cross U.S. borders.

Flowers of Yore

Kolla enhanced her soil with organic compost and planted it with dozens of annual and perennial varieties not usually sold by commercial florists. She invested about $15,000 in a truck and materials, including seeds, soil mix, and a market stand. "I had 14 rows, 15 feet each, of annuals such as sweet peas, ranunculus, cornflowers, anemones—dainty, old-fashioned flowers that people seem to really respond to because they are so quaint," Kolla says.

Although there are restrictions on running businesses from private homes, Kolla says an official from her city council member's office and a senior inspector in L.A.'s Building and Safety Dept. told her when she started that she would be fine as long as she didn't sell the flowers on her property. By 2005, Kolla says she was breaking even by selling directly to the public at three farmers markets and wholesale to local flower shops. (She declines to disclose her revenue.)

Trouble started after she began holding occasional organic gardening classes in her backyard. In 2008, neighbors complained and circulated a petition against her company. "An inspector from Building and Safety knocked on my door out of the blue and informed me that I could not do what I was doing," Kolla says. "It was a shame. Nobody [from the neighborhood] ever even talked to me to say it was a problem."

Financial Squeeze

The shutdown of her business coincided with the Hollywood writers' strike, putting Kolla and her husband, Beat, in a tough spot financially. "There was a moment when I was calling the mortgage company and telling them we couldn't pay that month. My neighbors were waving at me like nothing happened, but I don't think they realized what they had done to our family," she says.

By that point, Kolla was also growing organic vegetables on a client's five-acre plot in Silver Lake. So she and a fellow farmers market vendor came up with a new plan. They decided to establish the area's first community-supported agriculture co-op, where customers could sign up for weekly deliveries of locally grown produce. A year ago, they began weekly distributions to 75 customers who pay $25 each week.

They were also determined to change the law. She gathered a group of seven like-minded entrepreneurs who formed an organization they called Urban Farming Advocates in 2009 to lobby the city to legalize such businesses. Shelley Marks, a longtime Silver Lake community activist, decided to help when she heard about Kolla's problems after her partner took an organic gardening class at Silver Lake Farms. "The municipal code was so ambiguous, if a florist on the corner wanted to put her out of business because [he] didn't like the competition, [he] could get her shut down," Marks says. "That's unfair."

Outflanking the Bureaucrats

While the city ostensibly supports small businesses and particularly encourages eco-friendly ventures that keep cars off the roads, Marks says home-based business owners like Kolla often get caught in red tape. "There are some extreme positions about what you can and can't do with your property and a lot of laws that restrict people from having businesses in their homes," she says.

Kolla and her cohorts took their "Food and Flowers Freedom Act" to the Los Angeles Planning Commission, where more than 30 people showed up at an 8 a.m. meeting on a weekday to support them, Kolla says. "My heart had been broken, and all the time, energy, effort, and money I'd put into my flowers was gone. But I met some amazing people, and we found out that our city officials were big supporters of locally grown food," Kolla says.

This past July, a Los Angeles city code originally adopted in 1946 to allow "truck gardening" was amended to explicitly allow the residential growing of vegetables, fruits, flowers, seedlings, and nuts for sale off-site. With the law now in her favor, Kolla is busy planning her spring planting, hoping to get flowers back into the markets by next summer. And she's once again asking herself, "How will urban farming look as a business? It's been such a struggle, I worry that I've run out of steam. But the support I've been getting from so many people has been keeping me going. I don't want to let them down," she says.

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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