Reinvestment of acreage from air base results in Great Park

John Oncken
The Orange County Farm Bureau works closely with the Farm to Food and Extension programs.

In 1864, James Irvine Sr. and two partners bought and assembled the Irvine Ranch south of Los Angeles, from three major Spanish-Mexican land grants. Making up nearly a third of present-day Orange County, these 110,000 acres dominated the region’s agriculture in the first half of the 20th century.

Tenant farmers living and working on the land farmed cash crops such as lima beans and oranges. Nearly 20 years after assembling Irvine Ranch, James Irvine Sr. passed away in 1886, leaving his son, James Irvine Jr., a valuable legacy in Southern California - over a 100,000 acres of ranch land.

According to the James Irvine Foundation, James Sr. had used the Irvine Rancho San Joaquin to raise sheep, but his son saw in the grass- and cactus-covered land an opportunity for cultivation.

James Jr. became one of the state’s first major agricultural growers — and took risks. He believed in the fertility of the land and experimented with new cultivation methods, diversified crops, and drilled water wells and a canal.

In 1898, he incorporated the ranch holdings under the Irvine Company. Agricultural enterprises fueled the economic development of Orange County in the years leading up to World War II, and James Irvine Jr. became one of California's major agricultural farmers. By 1910, the 110,000 acre Irvine Ranch was known as one of the state's most productive growing enterprises. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, his father's pastures became some of the most productive farmland in the state, with lima beans – including a 17,000-acre field that was the largest in the world – citrus and wheat. Irvine made his fortune by selling the fruit of his crops, which were worth millions even in the early 1900s, to cooperatives.

Within 10 years of owning the ranch, Irvine became one of the top agriculturists, eventually growing more diverse crops such as celery, corn and sugar beets when more water became available.

EL Toro Marine Air field prior to its closure It’s now home to many other organizations.

The big change 

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor marked the start of the U.S. entry into World War II  and the end of the Irvine Ranch in Orange County, California as a solely agriculture enterprise.

 In May 1942, Lt. William J. Fox discovered Irvine’s expansive lima bean fields on a trip to the region to identify a potential location for a new Marine Corps air base. He found it and construction on the 4,682-acre base commenced on Aug. 1, 1942. 

During World War II, the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro served as a training base for pilots, aircrews, and ground personnel. It was a major debarkation location for military personnel being deployed for overseas duty. After the war ended, Marine Corps Air Station El Toro was placed on the list of seven locations to be maintained in active status. It was officially closed July 2, 1999. 

What about the airport? 

The former airport became a lengthy political issue: Would it become a city airport or something else ? (houses, businesses, etc.) 

After a lengthy and heated debate, the City finally determined that about 1,300 acres of the decommissioned Marine Corps Air Station would become part of the City of Irvine as the Orange County Great Park. Presently more than 200 acres is developed and 688 fully funded acres is in planning and design phases.

A humble, farm like entrance.

The Farm + Food Lab is one result

Located within the Orange County Great Park, is an interactive outdoor classroom for visitors of all ages, featuring numerous agricultural methods, interactive exhibits, and learning gardens. “It is a working and dynamic organic agricultural space with a mission to educate visitors about gardening, inspire innovative and unique ideas, and facilitate a thriving community of people working in partnership. The Farm + Food Lab is the perfect place to enhance your gardening knowledge or learn the basics about starting your first garden!”

University research fields are nearby.

The Farm + Food Lab is a unique and interactive outdoor classroom for visitors of all ages, featuring themed raised-bed gardens, fruit trees, vertical gardening, a worm compost bin, and solar and wind-powered lights. It is a working and dynamic organic horticulture area with a mission to educate visitors about gardening, inspire innovative and unique ideas, and facilitate a thriving community of people working in partnership. Visitors can experience the Pizza and Spaghetti Garden, Butterfly Garden and chicken coop, or take classes on pickling and canning. 

Solutions for an Urban Ag operates the facility in partnership with the City of Irvine and collaborating with the UCCE Master Gardeners of Orange County. Nathan Gipple a Landscape Architecture graduate is the Executive Director. He says the facility has some 60,000 visitors a year to the under 2 acre site. “That's not a real big number,” he says, “but, not bad for such a small site.”

Nathan Gipple, Executive Director.

Farmers Market Sundays at Great Park are headlined by fresh produce and fun at the Certified Farmers Market. Every week, the Great Park Certified Farmers Market features fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables for sale. It is located adjoining a huge parking lot making for easy access.

There are still hundreds of acres at Great Park to be developed. What next? 

Growing plants of many sizes.

John Oncken can be reached at jfodairy2@gmail.com