By his reckoning, Tad DeBoni has worked some 72 years in the bean fields. But at 91, DeBoni may have just completed the last lima bean harvest of his life.
A stout man in faded jeans and red suspenders, DeBoni has not decided whether he will climb aboard his 14-foot-high lima bean picker next fall and ride through the ever-diminishing bean fields of Ventura County one more time.
"I'll figure that out when the time comes," he said last week, a twinkle lighting his blue eyes.
DeBoni began harvesting beans in 1931, when lima beans were king of the crops in Southern California. For years, DeBoni farmed his own crop of beans, but now he is a hired hand, imparting his decades of knowledge to the latest generation of farmers.
In the early to mid-1900s, the hearty lima bean covered tens of thousands of acres of rich, coastal loam, stretching from Santa Maria to Santa Ana. At one point, the Oxnard Plain boasted the largest lima bean farm in the world.
But after the 1950s, when farmers began replacing limas with crops that would fetch higher prices, lima bean yields have steadily dried up. Now, there are only two full-time lima bean growers remaining in Ventura County, said DeBoni's son, David DeBoni.
"You don't get the price for them that you do for more perishable commodities," said Earl McPhail, Ventura County's agricultural commissioner. "Basically, it had to do with the price of land going up, and they had to start crops with a higher cash value. And people got to where they just didn't eat lima beans that much."
From 1985 to 2000, acreage for beans of all kinds in Ventura County dropped from 10,240 to 3,450, a 66% decrease, according to the county Agricultural Commission. Few commodities have experienced a greater decrease, officials say.
Tad DeBoni remembers when it took 14 wagons, 50 men and a team of mules to haul a cumbersome, old-style thresher from the hills to the valleys. A cook shack accompanied the operation to feed the men.
Back then, there were eight lima bean warehouses in Ventura County. Now, the pale green beans are shipped to Kings County or elsewhere for storage until they are sold.
Yet at the dawn of a new century, when computer-controlled harvesters are as commonplace on the farm as tractors, DeBoni does not appear troubled by the lima's steep decline. He acknowledges he threshes now more for pleasure than for money.
"It's something to do," he said matter-of-factly.
Born Feb. 18, 1912, in Oxnard, DeBoni has not missed a lima bean season in more than half a century. He was married for 66 years to Florence, but she died in May at age 90. Now he lives alone in the hillside home he built in Somis in 1961, with its commanding view of avocado and lemon orchards.
Although he wears a hearing aid, DeBoni has 20-20 vision and retains his ability to speak Spanish, a language he picked up working alongside Mexican agricultural workers.
The son of an Italian immigrant, he credits his longevity to hard work, good genes and drinking red wine. He said he tried smoking but never liked it. And he is mystified that the unregulated chemicals used in the fields after World War II never affected his health.
Content to keep the books on his small ranching business -- it's too hilly to grow lima beans on his own land, so he makes do with avocados and citrus -- and tinker in his shop during the off season, DeBoni downplayed his accomplishments.
"I just sit in an old rocking chair under an umbrella," he said. Never mind that the rocking chair rests on a platform atop the 15-foot-wide threshing machine.
Although he represents a fading past, DeBoni is keeping the tradition alive by sharing his lima bean know-how with 34-year-old rancher Paul DeBusschere. The son of a former lima bean grower, DeBusschere has hired DeBoni for three years running to help thresh his 300 acres of beans in Oxnard.
DeBusschere says the nimble DeBoni scrambles about his 7-ton harvester, fixing chains and gears, repairing parts and generally overseeing the operation.
"It's not surprising that a 91-year-old guy has still got his nose in farming," DeBusschere said last week, a month after this year's harvest ended. "There's a few of them, but not very many. He's really active, and he still rides that machine. My main source of information is my father and Tad. There's nobody in Southern California that knows more about the Price bean harvester than Tad DeBoni."
DeBoni's father bought his own hulking red harvester in 1942, and the piece of equipment has remained in the family. Made by G.E. Price of Santa Ana, DeBoni's machine and two owned by DeBusschere do the heavy lifting during harvest time each fall.
In the off-season, the harvester is housed in a rambling old barn off California 118 in Somis, where sunlight squeezes between the slats in the roof, like tiny searchlights illuminating the dirt floor.
McPhail, the county's agricultural commissioner, has never met DeBoni. But he is impressed by his longevity.
"It's unusual, because people his age usually don't have that kind of physical ability," McPhail said. "But people who work all their lives in the field and do that kind of physical labor every day of their life, it's probably what keeps the gentleman going."