A Bean Field in Time : Fountain Valley Pioneer Joe Callens Is Still Farming a Piece of His Original County Land
Joe Callens may be one of the few farmers in the world who works a $1.6-million bean field. It measures four acres and nestles not at all self-consciously back-to-back with a shopping center and two upwardly mobile housing developments in the heart of Fountain Valley.
The bean field isn’t self-conscious because it was there first. So was Callens’ farmhouse, which borders the fourth side of his field and looks as if it was plucked from an Orange County time warp. Which it was.
As far as he knows, Callens is the only Fountain Valley pioneer who is still farming at least a piece of his original land. Most of the rest are living in relative splendor elsewhere, many in Northern California. But Callens and his family chose to stay home, where they also live splendidly--at least by their standards. Along with his wife, Valentine, he still lives in the house his father built in 1910.
“My parents,” Callens recalls, “moved to Santy Ana (that’s the way he says it and it sounds much more poetic that way) when Val and I got married in 1945.” The couple raised five children there--three boys, two girls. All five still live in Southern California.
Callens has watched the evolution of the county from huge ranches to prosperous farms to suburban development to incipient urban blight. But unlike a lot of the county’s remaining pioneers, he refuses to deplore the changes.
A stocky, white-haired man of 77 with a ruddy, weather-beaten face and eyes that have for many years squinted over the hood of a tractor, Callens says with impeccable logic: “Hell, I’m still here. If I didn’t want to be, I’d move.”
Instead of railing against the changing environment, the Callenses have adjusted to it. They have preserved an enclave of stability and Old World values and surroundings amid frenetic urban growth. The relationship is not abrasive. They go their own way and are perfectly content to let the rest of the world do the same.
When asked whether early farmers tried to bring group pressure against their peers to resist the developers, Callens says: “Hell, no. We believed in individual rights, still do. If they wanted to sell property, they had that right. Each individual did his own thing. It’s a free country. People can do what they want with their property.”
What Callens wanted was to stay put. So that’s what he did--with some compromises. He sold or traded much of his county land for other farm properties not threatened by urban takeover. Most of that new land is in the Imperial Valley, where his three sons farm it successfully. Callens visits there about once a month but handles the business end of all his properties from Fountain Valley. “I like to go to the bank and raise hell with those white-collar guys,” he says.
He divides his time among his bean field, which he admits takes “about an hour to harvest with modern machines”; his shops, where he repairs and maintains his equipment, and a warehouse several miles away, where he stores almost eight decades of farm machinery, most of it once used on the family farms. It’s the biggest playhouse a man could imagine, and Callens walks through it fondly, patting his first pick-up truck (a 1930 Dodge), circling the threshing machine with which his father made a living when his farmland was virtually destroyed by a 1916 flood and pointing up to a loft where “the buggy my dad courted my mother in” rests.
Everything in the warehouse and the yards that surround it, he says proudly, is in working order. And he maintains everything himself. Stroking a vintage Caterpillar tractor, he muses: “All the time I was growing up, I wanted a big Cat. Now I don’t even know how many I have. My boys and I tried to count ‘em the other day, and I think there’s 43.”
He says, in the gruff way that fronts most of his talk and gives him room to maneuver, that he shows people through his collection “if they happen to show up while I’m here.” He adds that schools have arranged visits, and he is happy to explain the equipment to the children. Even to people with little interest in farming, the collection is a legitimate county treasure--a remarkably well-preserved evocation of the county’s not-so-distant past.
The facade of the Callens home is deceptive. The entrance is an opening in a wall along a busy Fountain Valley street of middle-priced tract homes. But up a short driveway is a barnyard that is rather like a museum display of a “Typical Early 20th-Century California Farm"--scaled down like Disneyland’s Main Street. But this is a working farm, with outbuildings in mint condition. The horse barn is given over to equipment storage now (“We sold the last team in 1947"), but the machine shop still functions much as it did 50 years ago, with all the accouterments of a blacksmith shop. Callens uses the smithy equipment now to repair and shape metal.
At the core of the home is the original redwood-siding house built by Callens’ father. The redwood has been stuccoed over and the house expanded in fingers of growth that produce a kind of labyrinthine effect. But over it all is a deep sense of warmth, of strength, of family.
Jim Dick, head of Fountain Valley’s Planning Commission and a resident since 1964, was visiting this day at Callens’ request to reinforce his friend’s recollections and shore up what Callens calls--inaccurately--his inability to be articulate. “Joe refused to come and talk to our historical society,” Dick says, “but we finally got him to just come and sit and visit with us. That’s his style, and he was great.”
Piece by piece, some very special county roots emerged in talk around the dining-room table that also serves as the social center in the Callens home. His parents moved to the county from Oxnard in the early 1900s, Callens says, and for more than a decade made their living as tenant farmers on the Irvine Ranch. “Every so often,” he recalls, “one of the Irvines would come out and inspect my dad’s land to see how deep he was plowing. They wanted to make sure the land was being farmed properly.”
In 1911, his parents bought the land on which Callens lives for $500 an acre. The elder Callens farmed 60 acres of sugar beets until 1916, when the Santa Ana River flooded and cut a wash through the middle of his land, ruining it for sugar beets. That’s when Callens’ father turned to commercial threshing to make a living, using the profits to switch the fields to lima beans and alfalfa and to buy other property outside the flood area. Callens grew up farming his father’s land, taking over the family home and the Fountain Valley property when he and Valentine were married.
“Two things changed this area: World War II and the Santa Ana Freeway,” Callens says. “A lot of servicemen exposed to Orange County wanted to come back here after the war. But about all they could do was farming until 1955. That’s when the Santa Ana Freeway started to build out this way, and we had to incorporate to protect ourselves.”
When Fountain Valley incorporated in 1957, “we had 5,000 farm workers and 500 voters. Only about a third of the people voted, and it came out (about) 90-60 for incorporation. We’d been county land before, and the people who opposed incorporation didn’t want to pay bigger taxes.”
None of them guessed the size of the bonanza coming down the freeway, developers waving rolls of bills for land. Fountain Valley remained intact for five years as a farming community until one of the pioneers sold a portion of his land for a residential development at the corner of Warner Avenue and Magnolia Street.
“It broke down fast after that,” Callens recalls. “The gates were open and, as somebody wrote then, we could see the shadow of the bulldozer’s blade in Fountain Valley.”
The price of land jumped to $10,000 an acre, then kept steadily rising. Callens--who served for nine years on Fountain Valley’s City Council, three of them as mayor--remembers a developer telling him in the late 1950s that “if it ever gets up to $25,000 an acre, I’ll never buy another piece of property in Fountain Valley.” He was talking about land that now costs $400,000 per acre.
“Frontage,” notes Dick wryly, “is now sold by the foot instead of the acre.”
Callens resisted the developers for a lot of years. “They were constantly calling me,” he recalls. “Tormented me to death. They’d say, ‘What are you gonna do with this home of yours?’ and I’d tell ‘em it was none of their business.”
The break came “when I opened my mouth one day. I was working on some farm machinery when this guy walked up the driveway and the dog started barking at him. He was one of those real estate sharks, and when I called him that, he got mad and said he’d been in the Marines and nobody could talk to him that way.
“Well, to get rid of him I told him I’d sell him some land for $35,000 an acre, providing he’d buy me a ranch in the Imperial Valley. And damned if he didn’t take me up on it.”
That is where Callens’ sons work today. The deal was the beginning of a series of land sales that made Callens a wealthy man and enabled him to acquire large landholdings outside the county.
Meanwhile, other Fountain Valley farmers were selling out for cash “and moving to towns and building castles.” He tells the story of one neighbor who sold his land with the intention of retiring and living sumptuously off the proceeds. “But he just couldn’t do it. He bought a hardware store because he wanted to be busy and had nobody to talk to.
“These guys need to work. So do Val and I. We’re just plain, ordinary people who like it where we are.”
She agrees, without prodding. “I thought about those castles a little bit,” she says, “but not very long. We have everything we need right here.”
Their biggest concession to modern technology is air conditioning, which is also built into most of the farm equipment. Although, he says, “I’d have a wood stove in this house if I could,” the Callens’ home is modern, if basic. Much more important than technology is the feeling of roots and permanence it exudes.
Does Callens believe the U.S. family farm is doomed to be replaced all across the country by mass-production absentee owners?
“Naw,” he says. “I’m not ready to bury the family farm yet. Some of these corporation farmers trying to run with hired help aren’t doing so good. Not like my boys who are right out there working in the fields.”
On Jan. 8, the Callenses celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary. Are they giving any thought to selling their $1.6-million bean field?
“Why would I want to sell it?” Callens asks. “I’ve got to have something to do.”