From Airfield to Farmland: the Transformation of the Great Park

You may have heard of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in south Orange County. Many years ago it was decommissioned, and there was much controversy about how the vacated base should be used. Last weekend, I was finally able to visit what is now called the Orange County Great Park with my good friend, A.G. Kawamura.

A.G. and his brother, Matthew, own Orange County Produce. Their two main commercial crops are strawberries and green beans. I found out a few years ago that our two companies are the two largest produce company contributors to our local food bank, Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County.

You may recognize A.G.’s name as he is the former California Secretary of Agriculture. He has since returned to farming full time on his family’s farm.

Frieda's Specialty Produce - What's on Karen's Plate? - A.G. Kawamura
Before heading off to the Great Park, we had a quick breakfast together at Knowlwood Restaurant, which is in a restored blacksmith shop. I found out that for decades, like many other farmers, local Orange County farmers get coffee and breakfast each morning at Knowlwood to catch up on the local farming gossip and to discuss prices, customers, etc. Seriously, the local farmers’ gathering place is an important part of farming vibrancy.

Frieda's Specialty Produce - What's on Karen's Plate? - Incredible Edible Farm

 

In addition to its commercial strawberry and green beans acreage, Orange County Produce also farms at the park’s Incredible Edible Farm, growing fresh produce specifically for the local food bank! I saw acres upon acres of Cauliflower, Kohlrabi, huge heads of Lettuce, and Kale.

(Click on the thumbnail to view larger image.)

Volunteers are recruited on a daily basis to harvest the food. Teenagers from local high schools, adults from churches and synagogues, Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, along with families (large and small), come to learn about how food is grown and to participate in the harvest of this fresh produce.

Due to the heat wave in Southern California, a bumper crop of Cauliflower had to be picked on the morning we were there. You can see that the large bins—holding close to 1,000 pounds each—were being filled to the brim. Then they went to a warehouse to be cooled and then distributed through a local network for food banks and distribution facilities.

This gleaning process is so educational for our local kids. They see how food is grown, and we hope that some of them decide to choose agriculture and/or farming as a career. In the meantime, they are helping feed those who are less fortunate.

Adjacent to the fields are some demonstration gardens to show visitors how they can have a garden at home, even if they don’t have much room or even soil. The vertical gardens were amazing—check out the Strawberries, Chile Peppers, and Kale!

And for the final educational piece, there is the Farm + Food Lab (click on “Things to See” tab). Staff members and Master Gardeners from the University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Orange County walk visitors through, explaining such things as integrated pest management (keeping the good bugs) and crop rotation (which can be synergistic). Sample home gardens and an outdoor classroom facilitate learning.

Overall, it was an amazing and enlightening morning.

Before it got too hot, our final stop around 11 a.m. was to pick strawberries in one of Orange County Produce’s fields. I learned the correct way to pick a strawberry and developed a true appreciation for the intense labor involved in producing those amazing morsels of sweetness.

I took a small bag back to the office to share with my coworkers. Even Hanna, who isn’t fond of strawberries, said she had never tasted anything so sweet and delicious.

If you’ve contemplated gardening at home, but don’t know where to start or don’t have much space, check out the Farm + Food Lab for some inspiration!

Karen

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