What's a 40-acre lima bean farm doing alongside the busy I-405 freeway in the center of Costa Mesa in Orange County, California? And why are the lima beans farmed with equipment dating back to the early 1900s? These questions have bothered me during many visits to the old southern California dairy area.
Orange County has a history of grazing cattle, apples, oranges and dairy cows up until the mid-part of the 20th century. Today it is the home of some of the nation's most visited tourist attractions: Disneyland, the Los Angeles Angels baseball team, Knottsberry Farm, the Anaheim Ducks hockey team, John Wayne airport, and the former El Toro Marine air base. And of course, South Coast Plaza, one of the nation's first shopping malls that is considered the most upscale and profitable mall anywhere and draws worldwide visitors.
That lonely 40 acres of lima beans are surrounded by two major multi-lane highways, a huge Ikea home furnishing store and several large cities including Orange, Santa Ana, Irvine and Costa Mesa.
The story begins in the late 1800s when C.J. Segerstrom emigrated from Sweden to Orange County to farm. Over the years he and his large family went from milking cows to raising lima beans. They farmed at first with horses and later with big farm equipment ‒ mostly the yellow, tracked Caterpillars.
At one time the Segerstroms were growing 4,000 acres of the big white lima beans. This was far from the biggest lima bean farm fields in the area, as James Irvine had the biggest bean field in America ‒ 37 square miles in an area centered on what is now the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
In 1922, Orange County produced more than a million bags of lima beans. In 1950, the Santa Ana Freeway was built in the area, and the family began developing their farmland, first as housing and business developments, then in the early 1960s with a shopping mall in Costa Mesa ‒ a former rural town that was expanding in every direction.
Today, South Coast Plaza has nearly 300 stores occupying some 2.2 million square feet that draws customers from the 3 million population of Orange County and far beyond. The shopping plaza is now surrounded by hotels, apartments, offices and an industrial park.
It's difficult to imagine this area as a former farm ‒ unless you get a chance to visit that 40-acre plot in Costa Mesa that is still referred to as the Segerstrom Ranch by family members.
Oscar Mendez has managed the ranch for over 30 years and is sort of the expert on its history. He and two assistants do all the farming on the 40 acres, which are all that remain of the Segerstrom lima bean farm. They also maintain the farm equipment stored in a handful of storage buildings and an old horse barn.
Parts, parts, parts
"The original horse barn burned, and this barn was built in 1908," Mendez says. "When the horses went, it became a storage building."
The horse stalls are still there but seem to be filled with yellow parts ‒ Caterpillar parts. Why so many parts for Caterpillar tractors? Because that's what was used to farm the lima bean acres, Mendez says.
There must be a dozen or so operating 'Cats', all the track type. In back of the well-equipped ranch shop, a couple of Cats sit in partial disassembled condition ‒ they are "parts" tractors. Another shed holds a dozen Farmall tractors, all of 1930-1940 vintage and all in running order.
Mendez says that Harold Segerstrom was responsible for saving the old farm equipment until his death in 1994, and his son Ted continued the collection.
"He's my boss," Mendez says.
Plant to harvest
The lima beans are planted in late April, sprayed and cultivated over the summer and harvested in early to mid-September, Mendez explains.
"There are no lima bean processing plants in this area anymore," Mendez says. "We haul them up the coast, north of L.A. to Santa Barbara."
Why this vast collection of old farm equipment on 40 acres in a metropolitan city teeming with fast traffic and crowded buildings? Mendez isn't exactly sure, but hopes it remains as is. He enjoys the old equipment and watching the lima beans grow.
It's not a museum, and they seldom have visitors. The antique farm machinery makes only one appearance a year, at the Orange County fair in July.
"I load some of the old tractors on a flat bed, and we go to the fair," Mendez says. "No farm shows."
The headquarters of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, long known for its business holdings and gifts to Costa Mesa (a performing arts center, high school and dozens of civic donations), remains in a corner of the ranch. No sign identifies the nondescript bulding, just a farm mailbox in the parking lot between the office and the original family ranch house that is in original condition but has been closed since 1964.
What are you going to do with this 40-acre ranch that is so full of history, a company executive was asked. "We don't know," she says. "It's not a museum ‒ we just haven't decided, and we're in no hurry."
Hopefully the company will find a way to keep it as a historical farm site that is actually still living. Where else would you find a lima bean ranch of the 1930s still being farmed, a red 1908 barn and a Caterpillar tractor collection that is in storage but also in use and maintained?
It's possible (even probable) that very few of the millions of folks who live within 20 miles of the site know what it is or how it was responsible for so much of what their lives are about. It is indeed one of the wonders of the world of California farming history!