By WADE DANIELS

Staff Reporter

The plight of Midwestern farm families has been well documented for years. But a more local drama of a farming family struggling to stay afloat is unfolding on 40 acres right off the San Diego (405) Freeway in Carson.

The Takahashi family has been farming the same plot of Carson soil since 1960, but now the family's Top Veg Farms is on a month-to-month lease as the property's owner prepares to develop commercial buildings on the site.

"We knew from the beginning that they were going to build on the land one day," Top Veg owner Frank Takahashi said of property owner Watson Land Co., a Carson-based developer that owns the farmland and an adjacent industrial park. "They could tell us any day that we have to leave, but they would give us enough time to finish our last crop."

For much of the decade, Watson Land made little effort to market the land because of the weak economy, said Audra Nelsus, Watson Land's vice president of asset management. However, with the economy in an upswing, the developer has decided it's time to put the land to more profitable use.

"That is land being readied for development," Nelsus said of the Top Veg fields. "They will actually be vacating that property shortly."

The pending disappearance of Top Veg's 40-acre operation is just the latest in the continued loss of L.A.'s agricultural base. The majority of the county's farming takes place in northern fringe areas such as the Antelope Valley, said Sherlin Neblett-Bernhard, supervising agricultural inspector for the L.A. County Agricultural Commission.

Meanwhile, the few farms remaining in the L.A. basin, such as Top Veg, are becoming fewer and farther between as appreciating land is converted to more profitable uses.

"A lot of farmers use land under power lines, and they are (even) losing those plots," Neblett-Bernhard said. "With deregulation of the energy industry, Edison (the local electricity supplier) is trying to lease its land to businesses like storage companies, where they can get more money."

In 1996 there were 4,994 acres of vegetable crops grown in L.A. County, down from 6,922 acres in 1985 and 12,380 acres in 1965.

While there are two smaller plots of farmland in the Carson area (about 10 acres each), there are none as large as Top Veg. The farm's original 200 acres have been whittled down to make way for the freeway and the industrial buildings adjacent to its remaining fields.

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