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Keeping 'em Down On The Farm

April 29, 1993|HELAINE OLEN | Helaine Olen is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

There was a time when agriculture was the economic mainstay of Orange County, a sleepy farming area where the county fair really was the social event of the year.

A small reminder of that past has been spared from progress.

On the Orange County Fairgrounds sits Centennial Farm, five acres of real estate that, since 1989, has been devoted to demonstrating to visitors that Orange County land is still fertile for crops and animals.

1 to 1:20: Entering the farm, visitors come across a large building on the right--Centennial Hall. The hall is only open during the week because its primary function is to provide schoolchildren with educational tours.

Yet it's worth a look even if you've already graduated grade school. The hall houses numerous young chicks and chicks-to-be, protected under incubators.

Deeper in the hall is a section devoted to nutrition. Hanging beside posters of the major food groups are factoids from Orange County agricultural history. A Garden Grove farmer produced a 7-pound onion in 1881. Another county agriculturist produced a 52-pound potato in the same city in 1900. A Tustin farmer in 1974 came forward with a 15-pound radish.

Another poster section is devoted to animal skin. This is the place if you've ever wanted to find out why pigs roll in mud. It has to do with their sweat glands, or lack thereof. They do it to keep cool.

1:20 to 2:05: Crops/topiary. As you enter the farm itself, you are assaulted by an array of smells.

The most pleasant odor by far is the one emanating from the small herb garden. More than two dozen plants grow here, including rosemary, lemon balm and basil as well as the less than sweetly aromatic garlic.

But the heart of any farm is its crops. Over the course of a year, more than 80 crops are grown here. The plants change by season, although some are perennials such as radishes, carrots, onions and lettuce.

Many of the vines, plants and bushes come with explanatory tags telling visitors what they are and how long they take to reach maturity.

Although there is much less agricultural activity in Orange County than there was even 20 years ago, a sign points out that it is still a substantial industry. In 1990, sales of nursery plants and cut flowers brought $135 million to the county; strawberries brought in $35 million; Valencia oranges put $21 million into the county coffers.

Other delights to be found in this area of the farm include at least a dozen topiary animals, wire mesh designs of cows, pigs, horses and other beloved barnyard animals with green leaves growing on them.

And, of course, there are scarecrows. At least a dozen. Some in jeans, some in white flowing material meant to give them a ghostly demeanor.

2 to 3: While wandering around the animal enclave, I met a number of mothers and grandmothers escorting preschoolers.

Costa Mesa resident Lori Edwards says she takes her 2-year-old son, Lance Schreder, to the farm at least once a week.

"Lance loves the animals," Edwards said as the boy kept returning to peep at the rabbit hutches. "It's a great learning experience."

Lance may be in love with the more than dozen rabbits, but my personal favorite was a small area, surrounded by a white picket fence, where geese, hens, a black rabbit and one small kitten live in apparent harmony, sharing water and feed. Wild pigeons and sparrows fly in and out.

There are also a number of sheep, pigs, cows, hens and turkeys--most are prize-winners at previous county fairs or their descendants who were donated to the farm.

But bear in mind this is a working farm, and the animals are not pets. They are not going to roll over to have their bellies scratched or offer a paw for shaking.

Many of the animals, however, do beg for food. Shamelessly. A Nubian goat allowed me to pet its head but in exchange made a number of attempts to eat my notebook. A horse licked my hand but appeared to be checking me out for carrots.

To avoid being disappointed, however, go knowing you cannot feed the animals; they are on special diets.

3 to 4: There is a plethora of restaurants in the area, but the easiest to find is Daddy's '50s Diner, a large eatery about half a mile up Fairview Road from Centennial Farm. They serve a fine meal, offering reasonably priced sandwiches, hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes as well as an extensive menu of Mexican food. Lunch will run about $7 a head.

Like the farm, the restaurant harks back to a more innocent era. Movie posters and ads from the 1950s dot the walls. Juke boxes at every table feature such rock 'n' roll classics as "Peggy Sue," "Maybelline" and, of course, plenty of songs by Elvis.

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