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A Bean Field in Time : Fountain Valley Pioneer Joe Callens Is Still Farming a Piece of His Original County Land

February 05, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Joe Callens may be one of the few farmers in the world who works a $1.6-million bean field. It measures four acres and nestles not at all self-consciously back-to-back with a shopping center and two upwardly mobile housing developments in the heart of Fountain Valley.

The bean field isn't self-conscious because it was there first. So was Callens' farmhouse, which borders the fourth side of his field and looks as if it was plucked from an Orange County time warp. Which it was.

As far as he knows, Callens is the only Fountain Valley pioneer who is still farming at least a piece of his original land. Most of the rest are living in relative splendor elsewhere, many in Northern California. But Callens and his family chose to stay home, where they also live splendidly--at least by their standards. Along with his wife, Valentine, he still lives in the house his father built in 1910.

"My parents," Callens recalls, "moved to Santy Ana (that's the way he says it and it sounds much more poetic that way) when Val and I got married in 1945." The couple raised five children there--three boys, two girls. All five still live in Southern California.

Callens has watched the evolution of the county from huge ranches to prosperous farms to suburban development to incipient urban blight. But unlike a lot of the county's remaining pioneers, he refuses to deplore the changes.

A stocky, white-haired man of 77 with a ruddy, weather-beaten face and eyes that have for many years squinted over the hood of a tractor, Callens says with impeccable logic: "Hell, I'm still here. If I didn't want to be, I'd move."

Instead of railing against the changing environment, the Callenses have adjusted to it. They have preserved an enclave of stability and Old World values and surroundings amid frenetic urban growth. The relationship is not abrasive. They go their own way and are perfectly content to let the rest of the world do the same.

When asked whether early farmers tried to bring group pressure against their peers to resist the developers, Callens says: "Hell, no. We believed in individual rights, still do. If they wanted to sell property, they had that right. Each individual did his own thing. It's a free country. People can do what they want with their property."

What Callens wanted was to stay put. So that's what he did--with some compromises. He sold or traded much of his county land for other farm properties not threatened by urban takeover. Most of that new land is in the Imperial Valley, where his three sons farm it successfully. Callens visits there about once a month but handles the business end of all his properties from Fountain Valley. "I like to go to the bank and raise hell with those white-collar guys," he says.

He divides his time among his bean field, which he admits takes "about an hour to harvest with modern machines"; his shops, where he repairs and maintains his equipment, and a warehouse several miles away, where he stores almost eight decades of farm machinery, most of it once used on the family farms. It's the biggest playhouse a man could imagine, and Callens walks through it fondly, patting his first pick-up truck (a 1930 Dodge), circling the threshing machine with which his father made a living when his farmland was virtually destroyed by a 1916 flood and pointing up to a loft where "the buggy my dad courted my mother in" rests.

Everything in the warehouse and the yards that surround it, he says proudly, is in working order. And he maintains everything himself. Stroking a vintage Caterpillar tractor, he muses: "All the time I was growing up, I wanted a big Cat. Now I don't even know how many I have. My boys and I tried to count 'em the other day, and I think there's 43."

He says, in the gruff way that fronts most of his talk and gives him room to maneuver, that he shows people through his collection "if they happen to show up while I'm here." He adds that schools have arranged visits, and he is happy to explain the equipment to the children. Even to people with little interest in farming, the collection is a legitimate county treasure--a remarkably well-preserved evocation of the county's not-so-distant past.

The facade of the Callens home is deceptive. The entrance is an opening in a wall along a busy Fountain Valley street of middle-priced tract homes. But up a short driveway is a barnyard that is rather like a museum display of a "Typical Early 20th-Century California Farm"--scaled down like Disneyland's Main Street. But this is a working farm, with outbuildings in mint condition. The horse barn is given over to equipment storage now ("We sold the last team in 1947"), but the machine shop still functions much as it did 50 years ago, with all the accouterments of a blacksmith shop. Callens uses the smithy equipment now to repair and shape metal.

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