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THE AGRICULTURAL HERITAGE : TUSTIN : An Honor System as Sweet as His Oranges

Just a few feet away from the busy intersection of Red Hill and Walnut avenues is a fruit stand that’s as ordinary as any fruit stand around. It sells freshly picked Valencia oranges for $2 per bag and avocados at 50 cents each.

A sign says self-service, and please, put the money in the metal box on the top shelf. No one watches. Anyone could just walk away and not bother to pay.

It’s the honor system, says Matt Nisson, the fruit stand owner, and although on occasion fruit is stolen, for the most part the system works.

“I don’t have the time to sit here and watch it all day,” said Nisson, 69.

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The fruits are picked from a four-acre orange grove nearby, the remnants of a sprawling farm that Nisson and his family have cultivated since 1915. Most of the land is gone now, swallowed by commercial and residential developments, he said.

Rising property taxes and the increasing cost of raising the oranges have forced many growers to sell their land, a phenomenon that is still happening around Orange County, Nisson said.

But Nisson, who lives in the same house where he was born, plans to continue growing oranges and avocados, “just as my father and my grandfather did before me.”

“This is my own piece of history,” he said. “I could step back in time and forget about the chaos of the world around me.”

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On a recent morning, while the noise from passing cars filled the air, Nisson happily bagged oranges as his two dogs played in the back yard. Hens and chickens scurried around.

Celia and Leo Kucheck of Leisure World in Laguna Hills pulled into the driveway to buy four bags of oranges, greeting Nisson effusively.

“I’ve been coming here for 20 years,” said Celia Kucheck. “He grows the sweetest oranges. Today, I’m buying for myself and my neighbors.”

Mike Clark, another regular customer, drove from Los Angeles to get his weekly supply of oranges. “They’re great, they’re fresh, my kids love them,” he said.

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After several run-ins with the city, Nisson has been allowed to operate the fruit stand on Walnut Avenue, set back about 20 feet from the street, in what looks like a bus turnout. He usually sells oranges from May until September. But this year, the state Department of Agriculture has included his citrus grove in a Medfly quarantine area for home-grown fruits.

Nisson said he has to clean the oranges and avocados, then bag them in a way that satisfies state regulations before he is allowed to sell them. “It doubles the hassles,” he said. He declined to say how much money he makes but said he’s at least breaking even.

Nisson’s grandfather, Mathias, came from Denmark in 1876, settled in Santa Ana and started the family’s orange groves. In 1915, Nisson’s father, Clarence, bought 10 acres in Tustin and started growing his own oranges.

After a stint with the U.S. Army during World War II, Nisson bought five acres of orange groves from his father and later added five more acres. But by 1968, Nisson was forced to sell most of his land.

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His three children are also raising oranges, so the tradition will continue, Nisson said.


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