5 Local Farms Surviving and Thriving in Orange County

Land that used be home to officers’ housing on a marine base is now used for farming at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. (photo courtesy A.G. Kawamura/Orange County Produce)

Land that used be home to officers’ housing on a marine base is now used for farming at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. (photo courtesy A.G. Kawamura/Orange County Produce)

Farming in Orange County is a challenge. Arable and available land is not only scarce, but oftentimes prohibitively expensive. Tenant farmers continually butt up against the relentless encroachment of urban development, which forces them to relocate their operations over and over again. But despite difficulties, farmers in the county persevere and even thrive. The growing local food movement in the county and greater Southern California region has also helped to provide farmers with new markets and opportunities. The OC farms listed below have employed grit and resourcefulness to achieve economic viability in a challenging agricultural environment.

Orange County Produce

Run by third generation Orange County growers A.G. and Matthew Kawamura, Irvine-based Orange County Produce, LLC (OC Produce) is a local farming enterprise committed to continuing the tradition of agriculture in the county. They have done this by being adaptable and mobile as they farm on vacant lots they lease. Often these lots are awaiting development, but haven’t broken ground for one reason or another. OC Produce signs a quick lease, they get to farm the land for a couple of harvests, and the landowner sees some income from his land. It is a win-win situation for all parties—including county residents who like to eat locally grown food.

OC Produce grows a wide variety of produce – from squash, tomatoes and peppers to higher value value fruits and vegetables like radicchio, strawberries and an extensive selection of beans produce – on approximately 1000 acres spread across 30 to 40 plots around the county.

OC Produce fruits and vegetables can be found at local farmer’s markets, in grocery stores and on restaurant menus, often just hours after being picked. The company also donates produce to local food banks as it believes in, “the common sense philosophy that food produced and consumed locally has multiple benefits for society, the economy and the environment.”

The Original Manassero Farms

When the folks at The Original Manassero Farms talk about growing for the “local market”, they mean hyper local, as much of what they grow is sold from their own distinctive red barn farm stands located in Irvine, Brea, Tustin and Cerritos. Owned and run by third-generation Orange County grower Dan Manassero and his wife Ann, the farms are famous throughout Orange County for their strawberries. Manassero Farms also grows squash, tomatoes, corn, herbs, lettuces, and a variety of other berries. In addition to selling fruits and vegetables from their farm stands, the Manasseros sell to local Whole Foods Markets. They also produce and sell their own jams, jellies and other preserves. 

To prevent any unsold produce from going to waste, Manassero Farms has partnered with local gleaner, Loaves and Fishes X10. This partnership makes it possible for thousands of pounds of free and fresh produce to go from the Manassero’s fields to local food banks and charities. From there, it is distributed to families and individuals in need throughout Orange County.

Neff Ranch

The presence of Orange County oranges at a number of farmers market in the region is in no small part due to the efforts of Don Neff, President of Neff Ranch, one of the last remaining orange growers in the county. After relocating to Southern California from Washington, Neff, a homebuilder and developer, was presented in with the opportunity to manage the remaining orange orchard on the Yorba Linda, CA estate of Susanna Bixby Bryant.

The location of the estate’s 21-acre orchard in the Santa Ana River floodplain kept its 4,000 Valencia orange trees safe from being bulldozed for new housing. In addition to the orchard that it manages at the Susanna Bixby Bryant estate, Neff Ranch also manages a 13-acre Hass avocado orchard in Tustin that is located on the hillsides of the Emerson tract subdivision.

Tanaka Farms

Glen and Shirley Tanaka and their son, Kenny, run Tanaka Farms on 30 acres of leased land located next to the Irvine Open Space Preserve. The Tanakas have embraced agritourism wholeheartedly and their farm is always teeming with local residents participating in educational farm tours and taking advantage of pick-your-own produce opportunities (they grow some 60 different crops throughout the year). The Tanaka’s also operate an onsite farm stand and a CSA with a membership base of 450-500 subscribers.

Kenny says location is key to the farm’s success. “You cannot tell you are in the middle of the city. We are kind of in a little valley so you don’t see many homes around. There is a different atmosphere here.” He continues, “If we had to replicate it somewhere else in Orange County, we probably wouldn’t get the same amount of traffic.”

Tanaka Farms gets about 20,000 visitors a year, with the largest crowds showing up during strawberry season (March-June) and during October’s Pumpkin Patch. The farm also hosts “Cookout Tours” where participants take a guided tractor or walking tour around the farm to pick their own veggies and then cook them onsite for a picnic.  

They also host regular gleaning days where volunteers pick produce that is donated to the South County Outreach and Families Forward in Irvine food pantries.

Future Food Farms

Chef and farmer Adam Navidi has transformed 25 acres in Brea into Future Foods Farms, a forward-thinking urban farming dynamo. The farm uses aquaponics to raise tilapia and grow a wide array of produce including lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, vegetables, peppers and flowers.  

Careful use of resources underpins everything done at Future Foods Farms, as Styrofoam boxes destined for the landfill, old nursery pots and even old salad bars are repurposed and used in the growing operation. There is even a herd of goats onsite to tend to unwanted weeds so no power mowing is necessary. Although, in truth, many of those weeds are far from unwanted, as Chef Navidi uses them when creating dishes for his restaurant and catering events.

The list of items grown at Future Food Farms includes an array of organic greens, herbs, vegetables, peppers and even edible flowers. But buyers won’t find the farm’s output in stores as the farm does not sell to wholesalers. Instead, the farm’s produce is available in area restaurants, to CSA subscribers, and at farmers’ markets throughout Orange County.

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