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Modern County's Glimpses of Farmland Bring It Back to Earth

October 20, 2002|Nick Spain | Santa Ana resident Nick Spain has been an archeologist in Southern California for 30 years.

There are precious few places left in Orange County where one can find land under cultivation. Witness the occasional strawberry field hemmed in by the cement-slab walls of industry, choked off by ever-expanding residential development, or strategically situated along a high-tension power line corridor. This is all that remains of a once-thriving agricultural economy that was fueled by large tracts of citrus, avocados, walnuts and endless acres of beans and tomatoes.

Much of the county was blessed with light, sandy, easily cultivated soil that proved ideal for farming. In parts of Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach, however, large-scale draining of sloughs, marshes and swamps was necessary to open up additional cropland. Once drained, this land became some of the best vegetable-producing acreage in the country.

Walking through my grandfather's bean fields as a child while growing up in Santa Ana in the 1950s, I got to see the last years of Orange County's agricultural empire. Through his eyes and those of my two uncles, I was able to experience their journey, which started at the end of World War I and ended in the 1970s, when, after nearly 50 years of farming an Irvine Ranch lease, Uncle Ernie retired.

During my childhood, Orange County was home to a mix of suburban residential and rural agricultural land use. Extensive housing tracts, industrial parks and mega-malls had yet to surface on the Southern California landscape.

During the 1960s and 1970s, real estate developers, industrialists and corporate retailers and bankers flooded the region, pumping capital into a sea of development projects. This phenomenon transformed the county's economic base within a decade's time from one that was heavily agricultural to one that was largely commercial and industrial.

As a result, farmers were hit hard. Those who wanted to continue farming were forced to move, as most of my family did. Others sold out and, if they were lucky, entered the county's growing nouveau riche class.

Those who chose to move their farming operations for the most part gravitated to the state's major agricultural centers: principally the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys and, to some extent, western Riverside County.

Some 30 to 40 years later, those meccas of agri-business are experiencing the same pressures Orange County did earlier. This is especially true in the San Joaquin Valley, where population growth and increased commercial and industrial demands are pricing land out of agricultural use. The long-term implications of such a trend are disturbing.

One must remember that no matter how technologically sophisticated we may think we are, we are still an agriculturally based society. As such, there are two fundamental and irreducible requirements to feed our large, urban-centered populations: adequate land of sufficient quality, and water of sufficient quality and quantity. History tells us when either land or water are squandered in a non-sustainable fashion, the carrying capacity of the food resource base will drop, followed by a commensurate reduction in the human population.

In the most severe cases, the very integrity of a society can be threatened. The object lesson is that we simply cannot continue to do in other parts of the state what we did in Orange County. Furthermore, we should do what we can to retain our remaining farms.

Today, a five-acre plot sits a mile from the Santa Ana Civic Center. This is where Jimmy Otsuka's father started a vegetable farm in 1947. Fifty-five years later, that piece of Orange County farm history is one of our few remaining family-run, roadside farm businesses. An atavistic reminder of days gone by, the Otsuka stand is more than mere nostalgia.

It is a striking reminder of our inexorable tie to the land, a bond for which there is no substitute.

To eliminate all vestiges of this link would deny Orange County not only its past -- its very origins -- but also its future.

Historical perspective is a valuable commodity in an expanding society. It provides a soundboard for assessing possibilities and selecting among alternative courses of action.

The Otsuka farm, and others like it, help provide this perspective by giving the community a glimpse into its past, a clear view of its present and a vision for its future.

These small farming operations reflect the important reality of our agricultural dependence, and thereby serve as urban classrooms -- living museums of a sort -- that incorporate history, science, technology and economics within a framework of continuity.

This continuity symbolizes a contract between generations, between communities and their neighborhoods, and between people and the land they live on.

One can only hope municipalities, school districts and other government institutions will see the wisdom in protecting and promoting these important historical islands in our urban midst.

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