COLUMNISTS

Quiet lima bean farm lone island amidst metro area

John Oncken

What's a 40-acre lima bean farm doing alongside the busy I-405 freeway in the center of Costa Mesa in Orange County, California? And why are the lima beans farmed with equipment that dates back to the early 1900s? These questions have bothered me during many visits to the old southern California dairy area.

Orange County was a land of grazing cattle, apples, oranges and dairy cows in the early part of the 20th century. Today it is the home of some of the nation's most visited tourist attractions: Disneyland, the Los Angeles Angels baseball team, Knottsberry Farm, the Anaheim Ducks hockey team, John Wayne airport, and the former El Toro Marine air base.  And of course, South Coast Plaza, one of the nation's first shopping malls that is considered the most upscale and profitable mall anywhere and draws worldwide visitors.

That lonely 40 acres of lima beans is surrounded by I-405, two major multi-lane highways and a huge Ikea home furnishing store.

Threshing lima beans at the then 2000 acre Segerstrom ranch, most of  which is now a major shopping center.

The beginning 

The story begins in the late 1800s when C.J. Segerstrom emigrated from Sweden to Orange County to farm. Over the years he and his large family went from milking cows to raising lima beans. They farmed at first with horses and later with big farm equipment – mostly the yellow, tracked Caterpillars.

At one time the Segerstroms were raising 4,000 acres of the big white beans. This was far from the-biggest lima bean farming fields as James Irvine had the biggest bean field in America—37 square miles in an area centered on what is now the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

Dozens of Caterpillar tractors are stored in sheds on the ranch and are all in working condition.

In 1922, Orange County produced more than a million bags of lima beans. In 1950 the Santa Ana Freeway was built in the area, and the family began developing their farmland – first as housing and business developments, then in the early 1960s with a shopping mall in Costa Mesa, a former rural town that was expanding in every direction.

300 stores

Today, South Coast Plaza has nearly 300 stores occupying some 2.2 million square feet that draws customers from the 3 million citizens of Orange County and far beyond. The shopping plaza is now surrounded by hotels, apartments, offices and an industrial park.  It's difficult to imagine this area as a former farm – unless you get a chance to visit.

The 40-acre ranch in Cost Mesa, California  is the last of the 4,000 acres of lima beans once farmed by the Segerstrom family.  It sits between I-405, two multi lane highways and an Ikea department store.

That 40-acre plot in Costa Mesa is still referred to as the Segerstrom Ranch by family members. Oscar Mendez has managed the ranch for over 30 years and is the unofficial expert on its history. He and two assistants do all the farming on the 40 acres, which are all that remain of the Segerstrom lima bean farm. They also maintain the farm equipment stored in a handful of  storage buildings and an old horse barn.

Parts, parts, parts

"The original horse barn burned, and this barn was built in 1908," Mendez says. "When the horses went, it became a storage building."

he horse stalls are still there but seem to be filled with yellow parts – Caterpillar parts. The walls are hung with old parts, the stalls are full of boxes of parts, and the floor and former hay mow (in the middle of the barn) are scattered with more parts.

This1930’s Farmall F-20 is one of 12 ancient Farmalls stored (and used) at Segerstrom Ranch.  Oscar Mendez  says they all are in working condition.

Why so many parts for Caterpillar tractors?  Because that's what was used to farm the lima bean acres.

There must be a couple dozen operating "Cats," all the track type. There are even several Holt tractors (45, 60 and 75 horsepower) and Best tractors (30 and 60 horsepower). The Caterpillar company was formed in 1925 with the merger of Holt and Best.

In back of the well-equipped ranch shop, a couple of Cats sit in partially disassembled condition – they are "parts" tractors.

Another shed holds a dozen Farmall tractors, all of 1930-1940s vintage. All are in running order and in pristine condition for tractors still in use. Mendez says that Harold Segerstrom was responsible for saving the old farm equipment until his death ion 1994, and his son Ted continued the collection. "He's my boss," Mendez says.

Scattered around the buildings – inside and out – are lineups of obviously old cultivators, plows, hay rakes, rippers and specialized land moving tools used on the former lima bean farm. One piece of equipment – among a half dozen stored wheel to wheel – looked like a huge sub-soil plow. Mendez calls it a chisel plow ditcher.

The 1908 horse barn on the ranch still has its horse stalls but is mainly used to store Caterpillar parts.

"You should have been here this morning," Mendez said. "We used this to make the irrigation ditch at the headlands of the field. The ditch is several feet deep and supplies the water to the lima bean rows."

In one of the sheds, two red bean harvesters were stored side by side. They looked like an early grain combine: wide and tall and pulled by a tractor – of course, by one of the big 60 HP Cats in the ranch's yellow fleet.

Plant to harvest

The lima beans are planted in late April, sprayed and cultivated over the summer and harvested in early to mid-September, Mendez explains.

"There are no lima bean processing plants in this area anymore," Mendez says. "We haul them up the coast, north of L.A. to Santa Barbara."

Scattered among the Cat tractors, bean harvesters and tillage equipment were some unusual specimens of old equipment: A John Deere Model 95 combine from the mid-1960s sits in a corner beside a 1947 International pickup and a 1965 Chevrolet car in pristine condition. A 1969 stripped-down Ford pickup, minus a roof, is used for pesticide application.

Why this vast collection of old farm equipment on 40 acres in a metropolitan city teeming with fast traffic and crowded buildings? Mendez isn't exactly sure, but hopes it remains as is – he enjoys the old equipment and watching the lima beans grow.

Among the old "Cats" at the ranch is this one that does not have the traditional Caterpillar yellow color.

It's not a museum, and they seldom have visitors. The antique farm machinery makes only one appearance a year – at the Orange County fair in July.

"I load some of the old tractors on a flat bed, and we go to the fair," Mendez says. "No farm shows."

Company headquarters

The headquarters of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, long known for its business holdings and gifts to Costa Mesa (a performing arts center, high school and dozens of civic donations), remains in a corner of the ranch. No sign identifies the nondescript building, just a farm mailbox in the parking lot between the office and the original family ranch house that is in original condition but has been closed since 1964.

What are you going to do with this 40-acre ranch that is so full of history, a company executive was asked. "We don't know," she says. "It's not a museum – we just haven't decided, and we're in no hurry."

Hopefully the company will find a way to stay as a historical farm site that is actually still living. Where else would you find a lima bean ranch of the 1930s still being farmed, a red 1908 barn and a Caterpillar tractor collection that is in storage but also in use and maintained?

It's possible (even probable) that very few of the millions of folks who live within 20 miles of the site know what it is or how it was responsible for so much of what their lives are about.

It is indeed one of the wonders of the world of California farming!

John Oncken is at jfodairy2@gmail.com