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THE LIMA LEGACY : Compared to Past Plenty, Today's Few Fields Yield Hardly a Hill of Beans

May 14, 1988|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

A cool ocean breeze washed Roy Pursche as he climbed into the seat of the Caterpillar and hit the engine. As it has for the last 28 years, the tractor kicked to life, sending a plume of white smoke out the exhaust pipe.

In front of Pursche stretched a furrowed field, framed most appropriately in this schizophrenic county by woods and horse stables on two sides and houses, condos and a city street on the other two.

Recent rains, which had kept Pursche from his appointed rounds in the field for more than two weeks, had moistened the ground. Two days before this, Pursche had worked the ground, churning the soil and mulching it to hold in the moisture for the task at hand.

All that was left was for Pursche to wheel the tractor onto the field, look over his shoulder to check the planter it was lugging behind and begin laying the seeds in the fertile earth that graces the coast of Southern California. And somewhere around 9:30 a.m. on this late April day, Pursche began dropping the season's first lima bean seeds some two inches into the soil on this secluded patch of 150 acres in Huntington Beach.

In so doing, he helped keep alive a rite of spring in Orange County, a county once dubbed "Beanville" because of its lima bean production.

No one has called it Beanville in many a year.

"This is what's left of the empire," Eddie Heier said, pointing toward the few thousand sacks of lima beans stacked in a corner of the warehouse, looking no more special than the lowly tomatoes or onions or watermelons also taking up space. In another part of the warehouse, workmen were handling large unopened cardboard boxes of Christmas decorations.

That was last October, and although Christmas was two months away, South Coast Plaza was gearing up for the season and, well, there was lots of room in the Greenville Warehouse.

It wasn't always that way. Heier, 47 and the warehouse manager, remembered other Octobers in a long-forgotten place called Undeveloped Orange County. That's when bean sacks would be stacked to the warehouse rafters and horse-drawn wagons would line up in the streets outside the warehouse to deliver the beans. It was a time when Orange County communities were separated by groves or fields, not four-lane streets.

Dumped in gargantuan mounds on the warehouse floor, the beans would eventually fill more than 100,000 sacks. And that was only part of the hundreds of thousands of sacks that the county's fields produced every year.

Those were the days, throughout the first half of this century and into the 1960s, when referring to the Lima Bean Empire didn't produce guffaws. In 1918, according to county historian Jim Sleeper, Orange County pioneer 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. In 1922, Orange County produced more than a million bags of limas.

The beans were a multimillion-dollar crop into the 1960s and, along with the more prestigious and well-known orange, became one of the dual monarchs of Orange County's agricultural kingdom.

"Oranges probably outpulled them, but limas certainly were contenders," Sleeper said.

Pursche has two farmhands to help him plant the beans, but he drives the tractor himself. "Right now I don't have anyone that matches my ability," Pursche said. "Not that I'm pushing my chest out. If I had someone else to do it, I would. It's just a little personal pride. That's one thing I'll say about the Segerstroms (the prominent Orange County family that owns South Coast Plaza and much farm land). They've got some guys who can make some awful straight rows."

Fred Burkett, who leases 41 acres on the same property where Pursche farms, watched Pursche two days earlier prepare the land for the annual planting. He remembered times when the fog would roll in and drape itself over the same field like some milky veil. The team of horses that used to plow the field would cut a swath right through it, parting the fog like Moses through the Red Sea. A sight to see, Burkett said.

Looking out at Pursche on the tractor, outlined on this blue-sky day by the condos in the distance, Burkett said, "It's neat that some things still can be here."

Pursche, 63, has been planting limas since before World War II. He sat atop his first tractor when he was 11, first helping his father and then taking over a farm when he was 18. He has farmed as many as 1,200 acres.

"It brought us through a lot of years," Pursche said of the lima bean. By the early 1960s, it was obvious to Pursche that, in Southern California, "real estate was the name of the game."

Yet, he laments the passing of the land. "It didn't really take me by surprise," he said. "But I didn't think it would go as fast as it did. By about 1960, it was quite definite that the end was in sight. It makes you feel sad because you know . . . there are thousands of acres under concrete and blacktop that are lost to growing specialty crops of a quality that we'll never see again."

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