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March/April 2012 Volume 103 No. 2
Bean Men Ride Road to Riches
By John Blocker
Frank Knechtel left his rusted tractor and walked through his lima bean field toward the road where I was parked. He was as old as his tractor. “I dry farm these lima beans,” he told me. It was about 1980 in Carmel Valley. We both knew the bean field and the adjacent tomato field would soon be replaced by tract houses and shopping centers. You can’t make money dry farming lima beans, I thought; but I needed a brush-up on history.
Lima Beans For the World
Beginning around 1880, farmers in Southern California produced and shipped more lima beans than any other area of the world. Farming lima beans back then could be a road to riches. California’s first lima beans were grown in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties around 1868. Henry Lewis is often identified as the first lima bean grower, although others have made the same claim. A ship returning from Peru anchored in Santa Barbara harbor. A sailor from the ship reportedly gave a friend of Mr. Lewis a handful of beans from the ship’s stores. Soon lima beans were being grown throughout the area.
Shortly after the crop was introduced to the west coast, Southern California produced as much as two-thirds the world’s supply. J. H. McCutchan, one of the first bean farmers in Ventura County, said about the early growers, “When I went to Ventura County nearly all the ranchmen were handicapped with mortgages on their land. Then we found what lima beans would do there and before long a wonderful change took place. Land went from $25 to $500 or even $1,000 an acre and now the struggling farmers of early days are riding around in motor cars.”
In 1891 Dixie Thompson farmed a 22,000-acre bean ranch in Ventura County, the largest in the area. The ranch produced 1,030 tons of lima beans that year. The crop filled 31,000 sacks and 103 railcars. This is eight or nine full trains of beans. In 1892 Thompson built a large barn with stalls for over 100 horses. He was also famous for his $3,000 silver-mounted saddle.
Henry Lewis did so well farming lima beans he was able to send his son to high school in San Jose and then to a business college in San Francisco. His son in turn began farming limas in the Camarillo area in 1889, against the advice of most of the growers in the area who said the land he chose was unsuitable. In 1901 he formed a partnership with Adolph Camarillo, and they commenced farming 10,000 acres, most of it in bean production. By 1916 he was not only farming but operating a barber shop, a small garage, a department store and the Farmer’s Bank of Camarillo of which he was vice-president.
Bean Industry Moves South
In 1914 more lima beans were produced in California than any previous year. The beans were being grown in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Oxnard, the center of the lima bean industry, was known as the “biggest little city in the world.”
On February 21, 1915, a Los Angeles Times reporter wrote, “A visit to Oxnard reveals the millionaire lima bean growers in one of the most prosperous farming communities in the world. All the growers own expensive automobiles and their country homes are equipped with the most luxurious conveniences enjoyed by city men. Many of the growers in the Ventura section are directors of large country banks and stockholders in other big financial concerns of California. The daughters and sons are nearly always furnished with university educations, and a number of bean men have recently indulged their families in a tour of the world.”
Lima beans like the moderate weather found along the Southern California coast. Their flowers wilt in the heat of the inland valleys and rot in colder weather. In the Los Angeles Times on May 6, 1923, George Law described W. L. Carter planting 400 acres of beans on the Santa Margarita Rancho (later Camp Pendleton), “The planting of lima beans began along the Coast near Oceanside during the middle of April. Continuous gray days, moist with fog and warmed by the ocean breezes have made for ideal planting weather.” The beans sprouted within a week of being planted and grew using only the moisture left in the soil from winter rainfall along with condensation from the fog and overcast weather common along the Southern California coast through June.
After harvest in September or October, beans dried in the fields in long thin piles or windrows. Dry weather was essential for harvest as moisture would rot the beans. After a few weeks of drying, workers hauled the crop to a thresher which separated the beans and sacked them. Harvest often continued well into the night. It was common for people driving by to see huge straw bonfires lighting the fields for the workers.
A Major Crop in San Diego County
Around 1905 Joe Vasa, a former resident of Ventura County, grew the first lima beans in San Diego County. Within five years, lima beans were established as a major crop in the north coastal area. The Wiegand, Denk, Tenten, and Wiro families planted the most acres. The Knechtels farmed a smaller area in Carmel Valley and as did Paul Robinson in Del Mar. These growers formed the first San Diego Lima Bean Growers Association.
Alfred Lansley grew lima beans on 10,000 acres in South County from 1917 until 1960. The fields were located on San Miguel Mesa. Lansley left us this description: “…it was a beautiful sight in the summer to drive through these rolling hills and see the dark green fields. Then a month later you would see these same fields turn a harvest gold.” Today, Southwestern College is located on this mesa.
Frank Knechtel’s father, also named Frank, began growing lima beans in Carmel Valley during the first decade of the twentieth century. His son continued farming lima beans in Carmel Valley until 1989. At one point son Frank owned more than 1,400 acres of area land. In his later years he hauled upwards of 50,000 pounds of beans to Santa Ana every year in his aging Ford pick-up truck. After retiring, he donated his harvester to the San Dieguito Heritage Museum.
The San Dieguito Heritage Museum recently initiated an annual lima bean barbeque in remembrance of the farmers who grew lima beans on land now covered with houses, condominiums and shopping malls. These dry land farmers relied strictly on Mother Nature to provide for their crop and were more than rewarded for their efforts.
–John Blocker worked with the agricultural industry in San Diego and has attended garden conferences and viewed gardens around the world during the past 20 years. From 1998 to 2008, he was on the board of the California Garden and Landscape History Society.
“Crop Short, but Money Return Will be Double,” Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1917.
Bonnie M. de la Cruz, “A Cowboy’s First Century,” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1990.
“Eight Million from Lima Crop this Year,” Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1915.
C.M. Gibney, Benjamin Brooks and Edwin M. Sheriden, History of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1917).
John M. Glionna, “Museum Booster Seek to Capture San Dieguito’s Essence for History,” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1989.
U. P. Hedricks, History of Horticulture in America to1860 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950).
Alfred Lansley, “Lima Beans,” Chula Vista – The Early Years, Volume Two, San Diego: Tecolote Publ.; Chula Vista Historical Society, 1992.
Angela Lau, “Heritage Museum to Break Ground Today,” San Diego Union-Tribune, May 18, 2006.
Diane Welch, “Lima Beans are Part of Area’s Heritage,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 29, 2007.
Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.