Irvine's farming past



When James Harvey Irvine inherited his father's ranch in 1892, he began the transition from pastoral sheep grazing land to a large scale, agricultural operation. Barley was by far the most popular crop grown in the early days because it could flourish in a dry climate. About 31,000 acres were planted in barley by 1895.

Since the 108,000-acre Irvine Ranch had no fences to mark its borders, it was vulnerable to squatters. Irvine encouraged tenant farming to keep the land productive and to prevent homesteaders from staking a claim to his land. Parcels of 700 acres were leased to farmers who would grow crops that required little water.

Each tenant farmer agreed to provide seed and cultivate the land, giving Irvine a percentage of the crop in return. The Irvine Company advanced money to the farmers and carried the loan, if necessary, from one season to the next. The one-year leases gave Irvine the ability to remove an unsatisfactory tenant. In most cases, leases continued year after year, with many passing from father to son.

Irvine noted the success of lima bean farms in the dry climate of Ventura and decided to cultivate the crop on his ranch. After initial weak harvests, the lima bean crop began to take hold. By 1911, Irvine described his operation as "the largest bean field under one management in the world." He estimated the value of his crop to be about $630,000.


Irvine knew that if his dreams of agricultural success were to come true, he would have to find a dependable water supply. To finance his much needed water system, Irvine sold off his coastal land near Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. He then laid 30 miles of concrete pipeline for irrigation and used Standard Oil drilling equipment to dig deep water wells.

Once a water supply was established, Irvine was able to develop walnut, olive, orange and lemon groves. As fast as water sources were developed, more orchards were set out. The ranch began producing celery, rhubarb and artichokes in addition to crops of corn and potatoes. In 1907, the peanut crop was valued at $12,000.

By 1916, the orange groves were so productive that the Frances Packing House was built to process the fruit. In 1929, the Irvine Valencia Growers Association packing house opened on Jeffrey Road near Irvine Boulevard. By 1938, members of the Irvine Valencia Growers Association controlled more than 3,800 acres of Valencia orange groves.


The advent of World War II brought a revolutionary change to the Irvine Ranch.

The Navy selected a site in the middle of Irvine's most productive bean field to build a military base. He didn't want to sell the land, and presented other options that he offered to lease for free.

The government refused and purchased two prime fields to build the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and the Naval Air Station Santa Ana. The post-war housing boom eventually reached the borders of the Irvine Ranch, causing the transformation from agriculture to residential development.

Contact the writer: Ellen Bell lives in Irvine and is the author of the book "Irvine: Images of America" by Arcadia Publishing.