IRVINE, Calif. — Orange County is no longer the giant of agricultural production that it was 60 years ago, but today it’s a national leader in exploring the future of farming.
Hydroponics, aquaponics, vertical farming, growing algae as a source of biofuel and for cooking oil and vitamins — it’s all part of the organic farm at the Orange County Great Park that honors agriculture’s past, educates urbanites and experiments with cutting-edge farming for the future.
“This is the largest ag operation in an urban park in the country,” said Tom Larson, farm, food and landscape manager for the park. “What’s so spectacular is it pays for itself.”
The farm is 105 acres within the 1,347-acre park, which was once part of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The 4,682-acre air base was active from 1942 to 1999, but before that the land was part of the largest lima bean field in North America.
“James Irvine (founder and owner of Irvine Ranch) fought this becoming a Marine base because it was a big-time lima bean field and was some of the best sandy loam,” said A.G. Kawamura, former state secretary of agriculture.
Lima beans, oranges, other citrus fruits and cattle were major commodities in 1949 when Orange County was a top county in the nation in farm gate dollar value. Other row crops and dairies abounded. But the amount of farmland dwindled from 142,151 acres then to an estimated 2,500 acres today as the suburbs of Los Angeles sprawled across the county.
Orange County Great Park is billed as the first great metropolitan park of the 21st century. It has been under development for about five years by the Miami-based Lennar Corp., the federal government and the city of Irvine. Lennar is paying the city $200 million for the first phase of park development. In return, Lennar is developing residential and commercial sites on the remainder of the former air station.
The park’s icon is a large, orange balloon that takes visitors 450 feet in the air to view park development. There are also botanical gardens, a Kids Rock playground and a carousel. The park hosts concerts and art displays. One of the two, 2-mile-long air station runways was kept for police to train for high-speed pursuits and for car dealers to test cars.
Farm takes root
The farm within the park is in its third season of growing organic produce, including strawberries, string beans, sugar snap peas, summer squash, cucumbers, asparagus and heirloom tomato varieties.
Fruit trees — apricot, pluot, peach, nectarine, plum, apple, pear and pomegranate — were planted this year, probably the first commercial fruit trees planted in the county in 60 years, Larson said.
Raspberries were also planted and next year winegrapes and table grapes are likely, he said.
Orange County Produce does the farming on a lease, gives some of the produce it grows to area food banks and is involved in the futuristic farming experiments.
Kawamura, a co-owner of Orange County Produce, said the company cut through and under the old runways to get water to the land.
“On our dime, through bidding, we came in and transformed previously nonproductive ground with negative cash flow into a producer of many crops,” Kawamura said.
Generally warmer and frost-free during cold snaps, the area grows some of the earliest fruit in the nation.
Strawberries and string beans remain his core business, but Kawamura sees opportunity to grow other organic vegetables for sales to local markets and restaurants because “we can deliver fresh, same-day product.”
He is bullish about the farm’s future, noting that some 17 million people — Los Angeles and its suburbs — are within two hours of the fields he farms.
Beside the Great Park, Orange County Produce leases another 1,000 to 1,100 acres of farmland in Orange County and packs and ships produce from four other growers in the county.
At the park, a farmers’ market is held on Sundays, people can buy produce through a community-supported agriculture arrangement and a farm store is to be built.
Flowers and crop plants are grown in raised beds at the Farm and Food Laboratory and plant anatomy and physiology are taught. People can interact with chickens and learn how to raise their own vegetables at home. Volunteers from the master gardener program of the University of California Extension tend the plants and teach classes.
“We highlight the importance of agriculture to those living in an urban area. It ties into our health and welfare programs,” Larson said. “People come and recreate and have fun but also go home a better person because they learned something — how to grow food and protect their own watershed around their house.”
There are solar- and wind-powered street lights at the Farm and Food Lab. Strawberries are grown in vertical planters as an example of saving ground space.
An embryonic aquaponic exhibit has a 6-by-4-foot cart of tomatoes, basil, lettuce, eggplant, marigolds and daisies growing in a medium of clay balls. Solar panels power a pump that recycles water through plant roots from a tank below them. Talapia fish in the tank provide natural fertilizer for the plants.
A greenhouse for hydroponic — totally liquid — growth of leafy greens will be built in six months, Larson said.
“We call these high-performance agriculture systems,” he said.
The idea is to develop ways to grow large volumes of food in small spaces close to urban areas, often without soil.
Algae produces fuel
A pilot project has grown two strains of algae that have produced biofuel and can produce cooking oil and food supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A and antioxidants.
“Next is an algae hydroponic system where we grow algae in large ponds so fish can eat it and the byproduct, fertilizer, from the fish feeds leafy greens. Kind of a closed-loop system,” Larson said.
Algae grows extremely fast and is high in lipids — or oil — so one acre of it can produce as much fuel as 250 acres of corn, he said.
“University of California at San Diego algae researchers identified our algae program as one of the most advanced and efficient farming of algae they’ve seen,” Larson said.
Stephen Mayfield, director of UC-San Diego’s Center for Algae Biotechnology, noted the Great Park’s algae program is in an urban area where lots of kids can visit and learn.
“That’s a much more important aspect than being the most efficient,” he said.
Sapphire Energy, a company of which he is a founder, produces jet fuel from 100 acres of algae in New Mexico, he said.
“I believe algae fuels can be competitive with fossil fuels at $90 a barrel in five years,” he said. “Once that happens, I would expect big oil companies to make the considerable investment to take them to millions of acres and billions of gallons of annual production.”
Larson said the technology is available to develop high-performance agriculture systems, but the challenge is perfecting such systems to be efficient and affordable.
“We’re studying how it pencils out,” he said. “We think it has great opportunity when it can be done close to the consumer.”