THE LIMA LEGACY : Compared to Past Plenty, Today’s Few Fields Yield Hardly a Hill of Beans

Times Staff Writer

A cool ocean breeze washed Roy Pursche as he climbed into the seat of the Caterpillar and hit the engine. As it has for the last 28 years, the tractor kicked to life, sending a plume of white smoke out the exhaust pipe.

In front of Pursche stretched a furrowed field, framed most appropriately in this schizophrenic county by woods and horse stables on two sides and houses, condos and a city street on the other two.

Recent rains, which had kept Pursche from his appointed rounds in the field for more than two weeks, had moistened the ground. Two days before this, Pursche had worked the ground, churning the soil and mulching it to hold in the moisture for the task at hand.

All that was left was for Pursche to wheel the tractor onto the field, look over his shoulder to check the planter it was lugging behind and begin laying the seeds in the fertile earth that graces the coast of Southern California. And somewhere around 9:30 a.m. on this late April day, Pursche began dropping the season’s first lima bean seeds some two inches into the soil on this secluded patch of 150 acres in Huntington Beach.


In so doing, he helped keep alive a rite of spring in Orange County, a county once dubbed “Beanville” because of its lima bean production.

No one has called it Beanville in many a year.

“This is what’s left of the empire,” Eddie Heier said, pointing toward the few thousand sacks of lima beans stacked in a corner of the warehouse, looking no more special than the lowly tomatoes or onions or watermelons also taking up space. In another part of the warehouse, workmen were handling large unopened cardboard boxes of Christmas decorations.

That was last October, and although Christmas was two months away, South Coast Plaza was gearing up for the season and, well, there was lots of room in the Greenville Warehouse.

It wasn’t always that way. Heier, 47 and the warehouse manager, remembered other Octobers in a long-forgotten place called Undeveloped Orange County. That’s when bean sacks would be stacked to the warehouse rafters and horse-drawn wagons would line up in the streets outside the warehouse to deliver the beans. It was a time when Orange County communities were separated by groves or fields, not four-lane streets.

Dumped in gargantuan mounds on the warehouse floor, the beans would eventually fill more than 100,000 sacks. And that was only part of the hundreds of thousands of sacks that the county’s fields produced every year.

Those were the days, throughout the first half of this century and into the 1960s, when referring to the Lima Bean Empire didn’t produce guffaws. In 1918, according to county historian Jim Sleeper, Orange County pioneer James Irvine had the biggest bean field in America--37 square miles in an area centered on what is now the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. In 1922, Orange County produced more than a million bags of limas.

The beans were a multimillion-dollar crop into the 1960s and, along with the more prestigious and well-known orange, became one of the dual monarchs of Orange County’s agricultural kingdom.

“Oranges probably outpulled them, but limas certainly were contenders,” Sleeper said.

Pursche has two farmhands to help him plant the beans, but he drives the tractor himself. “Right now I don’t have anyone that matches my ability,” Pursche said. “Not that I’m pushing my chest out. If I had someone else to do it, I would. It’s just a little personal pride. That’s one thing I’ll say about the Segerstroms (the prominent Orange County family that owns South Coast Plaza and much farm land). They’ve got some guys who can make some awful straight rows.”

Fred Burkett, who leases 41 acres on the same property where Pursche farms, watched Pursche two days earlier prepare the land for the annual planting. He remembered times when the fog would roll in and drape itself over the same field like some milky veil. The team of horses that used to plow the field would cut a swath right through it, parting the fog like Moses through the Red Sea. A sight to see, Burkett said.

Looking out at Pursche on the tractor, outlined on this blue-sky day by the condos in the distance, Burkett said, “It’s neat that some things still can be here.”

Pursche, 63, has been planting limas since before World War II. He sat atop his first tractor when he was 11, first helping his father and then taking over a farm when he was 18. He has farmed as many as 1,200 acres.

“It brought us through a lot of years,” Pursche said of the lima bean. By the early 1960s, it was obvious to Pursche that, in Southern California, “real estate was the name of the game.”

Yet, he laments the passing of the land. “It didn’t really take me by surprise,” he said. “But I didn’t think it would go as fast as it did. By about 1960, it was quite definite that the end was in sight. It makes you feel sad because you know . . . there are thousands of acres under concrete and blacktop that are lost to growing specialty crops of a quality that we’ll never see again.”

Asked why he’s holding out against the onrush of progress, Pursche said: “That’s a sad story. I wanted to retire earlier, but my wife has Alzheimer’s disease. As long as she’s alive, I’ve got to keep busy. You don’t dwell on your problems when you’re out keeping busy.”

To some people, limas have all the deliciousness of dissolved chalk. But they have their place in American history. During the Depression, limas were the Thursday staple, Sleeper said. And during the war, he noted, “It was the crop that sent our boys marching. Lima beans are a big mover, so to speak.”

Eventually, the beans were overrun by the ever-increasing prices Orange County farmers were offered for their land. “You can’t compare lima beans with industrial complexes and shopping centers,” Sleeper said. “The farmers were smart enough to hold onto their land as long as they did. It was the tax assessor that taxed them out of agriculture as much as anything else. In Orange County, you were taxed on potential, not on what something can produce. If the guy next to you had an apartment complex and you had lima beans, you were taxed the same as he was. To keep one step ahead, farmers simply had to go to industrial and commercial development.”

The harvest from Orange County’s multitudinous bean fields would come in around September. Sometimes, it would be the next May or June before the harvest had been cleaned by the women working the conveyor belts. There were so many beans moving along the belts--eight hours a day for months--that sometimes the women would get nauseated watching the unending stream of beans rolling past them and would have to leave their posts.

The beans, which also thrived in Madagascar, were brought to Southern California around the turn of the century from Lima, Peru. The first big California farms were in Ventura County, but farmers in Orange County, realizing that beans loved coastal soil and the Southern California climate, quickly followed suit. During the beans’ heyday in the post-World War I era, the two counties would vie for biggest bean production.

But unfortunately for the beans, those same cool mornings and long warm summers that they loved also proved alluring to humans.

“When I came here in ’63,” Heier said, “from Bristol to Beach Boulevard and, say, from Warner to the 405 Freeway, it was nothing but lima beans.” But sometime in the mid-1970s, Heier recalled, the bean-cleaning crews were through by Christmas. It was the tip off that the empire was crumbling.

For bean farmers, the numbers just didn’t add up any more. “Years ago they said if you got 20 sacks to an acre, that was good,” Heier said. “And you’d get $20 a sack. That was $400 an acre. But then you had (expenses for) labor, water, upkeep on equipment. It would eat up all you’d make on an acre. Then when you could sell for $80,000 an acre . . . well, you could live pretty good off $80,000 an acre.”

The tangible evidence of the empire’s demise is supplied by the Orange County Agriculture Commission. In 1947, the county’s lima bean acreage was 27,715 and the yield was $7.6 million. By 1957, the acreage had dropped to 20,362 and the crop yield to $2.8 million. In 1977, with the development of the county a foregone conclusion, acreage had dropped to 831 and the yield had shrunk to $779,800. The decline continued in 1987. Acreage in the county shrank more than 40% from 1986 to 446 acres, producing a yield of $369,000.

Mark Pickett is senior commodity trader with the California Bean Growers Assn. in Oxnard. “Just like the citrus industry, Orange County got overgrown with people, and the beans migrated to the San Joaquin Valley,” Pickett said. “People would rather put in shopping centers than grow beans. Farming is a way of life and all the people made a very good, decent living off the land, but they got rich by selling land to developers for shopping malls and homes.”

Pickett is aware that limas aren’t universally loved: “I never liked them myself until I got involved with them,” Pickett said. “But it’s like wine--you develop a taste for it. . . . If you go into the South, all the Southern states and up to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, limas are still a favorite. Here in California, anything three weeks old is history, but you go back to the South and the Eastern Seaboard, where families have lived in the same place and recipes get handed down, the lima is still a favorite.”

To Pickett, the lima is simply another innocent victim of progress. “I kind of hate seeing it go out of style. I wish it wasn’t. Not many people like lima beans. I’m somewhat nostalgic for the days when it was the Cadillac of the bean. You get emotional ties to the growers and the life style.”

The Segerstrom family is synonymous with Orange County growth. Once the country’s largest independent growers of lima beans, the Segerstroms built South Coast Plaza amid bean fields.

The lima, Ted Segerstrom says, is part of “family history. We wouldn’t be what we are today if not for the lima bean.”

His father, Hal Segerstrom, concurs. “It was the basis for everything,” Hal Segerstrom, one of the managing partners of C. J. Segerstrom & Sons, said. In one particularly abundant year, Segerstrom said, his father rejoiced over the fact it took 50 railroad cars to load up the summer’s bean crop.

The family still farms about 180 acres of lima beans in Orange County. Ted Segerstrom’s attachment to the farm is such that he has spearheaded an effort to maintain vintage tractors on the family farm, hard by the 405 Freeway.

“The times I enjoyed the most,” he said, “were at night, when you were working on a hot dry night, past sundown and you’d use the lights on the tractor and on the harvester. It was really something to see, something to experience. It was a feeling of power, for some reason.”

Like the Segerstroms, Pursche has stuck with the lima. So has Joe Callens, 77. For Callens, it’s as much out of passion for working the fields as anything else. Callens has four acres right next to his home on a busy Fountain Valley street.

“I still want to farm,” the crusty Callens said. “I’m not making money on it; I’m losing money. But what good’s money if you don’t have fun? Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”

Callens says he felt the first pressure to sell his land in 1957. “I used to cuss those quick-draw, fast-buckers. I’d say, ‘Leave a guy alone. You probably came out here from the East to get into real estate.’ ”

But they kept bugging him, and in 1978, Callens sold about 200 acres of land for about $87,000 an acre--a purchase he says he gladly would have passed up. “It was hard to part with the land, but you can’t be running up and down the road, trying to farm, with houses coming out in your fields. You’re overrun.”

Callens’ last stand is the four acres next to his home. He says he won’t sell that, although he could make a bundle. “Hell, I still get up at 5 o’clock, just like in the old days,” he said. “Probably a lot of people think I’m crazy, but I don’t give a damn. Hell, I want to farm beans.”

And even if the surviving bean fields eventually are overrun by houses or malls, the county will have a reminder. In 1981, sculptor Isamu Noguchi unveiled a 28-ton sculpture in Town Center at South Coast Plaza. Named “The Spirit of the Lima Bean,” the sculpture commemorates the Segerstrom family’s association with the lima bean.

For those who love the history of Orange County, the demise of the bean parallels the changing of the times. “I don’t dare look at it too sentimentally,” Sleeper, the historian, said. “If I did, it would break my heart.