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OUT OF THE LIMA LIGHT : Rise in Cost and Competition Puts Future in Doubt for the BountifulBeans That Made Oxnard Famous

September 01, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

The din of freshly frozen lima beans cascading onto an assembly line at the Oxnard Frozen Foods Cooperative was overpowering, a Niagara of legumes.

"Sounds like marbles hitting metal," Bob Bangs, the packing house's plant manager, observed with satisfaction.

But the sound was also the death rattle for the once-mammoth growers' cooperative, which still packs more Green Fordhook lima beans than any other plant in the United States.

After 30 years in business, Oxnard Frozen Foods is in the thick of its last pack, casting doubt on the future of one of Oxnard's best-known products and the bane of many a childhood.

Growers say they have not decided whether they will continue to plant the wrinkled, sage-green vegetable whose abundance once earned the Oxnard Plain its informal title of the Lima Bean Capital.

The commodity's future locally rides on the outcome of the harvest under Alpac Food, the privately operated Santa Maria company that in June bought the financially troubled cooperative's equipment and announced plans to pack the very last lima bean with an Oxnard label.

If Alpac, which plans to move its equipment from Oxnard to Santa Maria, is able to improve returns on the beleaguered beans, growers said, they will continue planting them.

If, however, the bean continues to be battered by rising land costs, competition from cheaper varieties and changes in the American diet, more growers will follow their disgruntled predecessors into such fresh commodities as tomatoes and cucumbers.

The cooperative had harvested, cleaned, frozen, packed and sold to distributors like Birdseye lima beans and other commodities grown by 38 local farmers. It employed 160 seasonal employees, although even until the early 1980s, it boasted one of the county's largest agricultural payrolls with 1,000 employees.

Alpac officials are "very enthusiastic" about the prospects for turning around the outlook for the commodity, which is produced almost exclusively in the Oxnard Plain, said plant manager Paul Altorfer.

"We have done market research over the past year, and we found we can increase sales by increasing the availability of the product," he said.

But early estimates are not encouraging. At 4,672 acres, lima bean plantings are nearly a third less than last year's 6,200 acres. Shortages would further diminish demand by driving up the price of the vegetable and by relinquishing precious shelf space in grocers' freezers, packing officials said.

"You have space in the freezer cabinet for a certain product," Bangs said. "If the product is out of stock for any length of time, that space goes to another product. To get that back is very difficult. In the past, some freezer space has been lost forever to lima beans."

Even if Alpac succeeds where the growers have failed, nobody expects the vegetable to regain the ground it's lost since its glory days in the mid-1960s.

"We're in turmoil right now," said Oxnard grower James Gill, who this year reduced acreage devoted to lima beans by 50 acres to 600 acres. "Candidly, I'm concerned about the future for Fordhooks."

Concern hasn't always been in order. For nearly a century after the lima bean was introduced to the United States by a merchant ship that docked off Ventura, its future along the Gold Coast looked rosy.

While visiting the ship's crew in 1868, Carpinteria rancher Henry Lewis sampled their cargo of beans from Lima, Peru. Lewis was so taken with the large, dry white beans that he left with enough to plant his own fields.

By 1885, the lima bean had become a major crop along the Ventura and Santa Barbara coasts, where long, dry and cool summers were similar to those of the legume's native coastal Peru.

Fifty years later, Ventura farmers had become the nation's leaders in dry lima beans with 40,621 acres devoted to them.

But soon that variety was replaced with a strain developed by the venerable W. Atlee Burpee seed company in Warminster, Penn.--the Green Fordhook.

Harvested fresh instead of dry, it was uniquely suited to the frozen food industry that burgeoned after World War II. Palates shaped by frugal, meatless dinners during the Depression embraced the bean that was rich not only in protein but also calories.

Although it could be grown in some parts of California and the East, the Green Fordhook flourished on the Oxnard Plain, which became its leading producer. Oxnard Frozen Foods, opened by a private firm but soon bought by a group of growers, rushed to meet the demand, packing spinach, broccoli and other vegetables during the off-season.

In the process, the Green Fordhook became part of the county's identity. Local eateries, such as the Sportsman restaurant in Ventura and the now-defunct drive-in, Judy's Sandwich Shop, in Camarillo, made the vegetable their signature dish. Taken with the crop's unlimited potential, one Ventura County farmer even created a mottled red-and-white lima he dubbed "the Christmas bean." It flopped.

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