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After 65 Years on Groves, Lacouagues Must Sell the Land : Farmers’ Tradition Is Ending

Times Staff Writer

Jean Lacouague is ending a 65-year family tradition. From his view, he has no choice: Oranges don’t sell the way they used to, and the cost of operating his 260-acre spread in San Juan Capistrano is becoming prohibitive.

“You’re not going to make money growing oranges around here anymore,” Lacouague said one cloudy morning recently as he maneuvered his half-ton truck along San Juan Creek, which forms the northwest boundary of the land his father bought in 1920.

“Ever since the costs started going up (in the 1970s), the returns have been going down. The worldwide competition for oranges has made a big impact, too,” the 62-year-old farmer said.

Expects to Retire

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Before the year is out, Lacouague expects to be retired and in the process of building a new home on a four-acre parcel he will keep after he sells his land. The buyer, a Canadian company, wants to convert the citrus farm into a housing development with lots that are a minimum of one acre.

And so the end approaches for another citrus grove in Orange County. In the 1940s, orange groves covered more than 66,000 acres--about 13% of the county. Today, less than 5,000 acres of groves remain.

But Lacouague is pragmatic about his fate and doesn’t want to evoke sentimental talk about the family farm, although the history of the Lacouague Ranch is perhaps as colorful and rich as that of any farm in Orange County.

Lacouage’s father, Pierre, came to San Juan Capistrano in 1910. He was a French Basque with high hopes of succeeding in the new country. Hard work and a good connection enabled him to fulfill his dream in only 10 years.

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When Pierre Lacouague arrived in California at age 25, he sought out Cornelio Echenique, a Spanish Basque who had amassed a large fortune as a landowner after arriving in old San Juan Capistrano in the 1880s. By the turn of the century, Echenique owned a good portion of the farmland from north of San Juan Capistrano to San Clemente.

“My father knew Echenique’s family back in the old country, and he came looking for him because he knew that Echenique could give him a job,” Lacouague said.

Echenique, who was born in Maya, Spain, a short distance across the border from Pierre Lacouague’s village of Ainhoa, France, took an instant liking to the young and energetic Basque immigrant and put him to work immediately.

For 10 years, Pierre worked for Echenique and other large landowners in the area. In 1920, he was able to buy Echenique’s 260-acre parcel that stretched from San Juan Creek to three hills forming a ridge bordering what is now Mission Viejo. Although Lacouague does not know how much his father paid for the farm, he said the price was high, even by 1920 standards.

Married Maid

Pierre also married Monifacia Mujica, a Spanish Basque who worked as a maid at the Echenique homestead after she migrated to California in 1918. Thus began the 65-year era of the Lacouague Ranch.

Jean Lacouague was born on the ranch in 1923 and has lived and worked there all of his 62 years, save for the four years he served as an infantryman in Europe during World War II.

“In all that time, we never added an acre . . . or lost an acre. This is the original land,” said Lacouague, brushing dust from his khaki work shirt.

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For at least 50 years, the Lacouagues (Pierre Lacouague died in 1972) managed a good living by raising choice Valencia oranges. But since then, Lacouague said, times have been especially tough. He wouldn’t say how much of a financial burden the farm has been the last decade, but he has spent at “least $50,000 a year” in operating costs, not including the yearly property taxes.

“It’s tough. But the question is not really how many years you didn’t make any money. It’s how many years you didn’t make enough money to make it worthwhile,” Lacouague said.

Competition Tougher

Besides the large increases in energy costs to maintain the farm, Lacouague said, technology and stiffer competition contributed to his business decline. The advent of concentrated orange juice, he said, has also had a lasting impact on the citrus farm.

“With orange concentrate, you can store oranges. You can be looking at last year’s big crop sitting on the shelf (at supermarkets), while this year’s short crop that normally would bring you more money is bringing you less,” Lacouague said.

“It got to be too much trouble. And I just can’t afford to sell it as an orange grove. There’s no money in that,” he added.

Lacouague’s son, Dan, now owns a small portion of the business and lives in the original Spanish-style home that Pierre Lacouague built on a hill overlooking the heart of the farm. But the third-generation citrus farmer has declined to take over the business, acquiescing to his father’s desire to sell the entire farm and retire.

“I want to retire, do some traveling. The money I get from the land will be the only pension I’ll have,” said Jean Lacouague, who declined to say how much he will earn from the sale.

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Still Farms With Zeal

The citrus farmer, although only months away from retirement, still goes about his chores with the same gusto he inherited from his father. He rises at dawn to begin irrigating the 90 acres of orange grove. He usually doesn’t quit until sundown.

“There’s always work to do around here, whether it’s Tuesday or Thursday . . . or Sunday,” Lacouague said. “Every day is the same.”

Lacouague is “always working. There’s always something to do around the farm,” said Maria Incarnacion Sinsinea Lacouague, a Basque who was born in the same French village where Lacouague’s father had lived.

Maria Incarnacion, a cheerful woman with clear blue eyes, came to San Juan Capistrano in 1947 under the sponsorship of the old Basque patriarch, Echenique. She married Lacouague at the farm four years later.

No Choice

Lacouague refuses to yield to sentimentality about having to sell the farm that has sustained three generations of Lacouagues for 65 years. He knows he has no other choice.

“Your worth is your land. You can’t eat the land,” he said philosophically. “I can’t make money growing oranges.”

Although in a few years he will be surrounded by a new subdivision, he says he is pleased at the prospect of living out his life at his birthplace.

“You can’t transplant an old tree,” Lacouague said. “I’ll just piddle around my four acres.”


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