When A.G. Kawamura was appointed California secretary of agriculture in 2003, the third-generation grower-shipper was unsure about the future of the family-owned Orange County Produce LLC, Irvine, Calif.
Ever-rising production costs had prompted Kawamura to consider moving the Southern California operation to Oxnard, Santa Maria or even Mexico.
But that has changed, thanks in part to the locally grown movement and his involvement with the Orange County Great Park, Irvine.
“Today I’d tell you I feel excited about the outlook for the long run growing produce in Orange County,” he said as he gave me a tour of the park.
“We hope we’ll still be here for a long, long time.”
Young people are taking a greater interest in agriculture, Kawamura said, and he believes the industry has a place in urban areas and not just as urban agriculture.
Instead, he said he preferred the term agricultural urbanization, which integrates the two seamlessly. It’s akin to edible landscaping where you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.
The Great Park is an effort by Orange County to convert the old El Toro Air Base into a park twice the size of New York’s Central Park.
Upon his departure as agriculture secretary in 2010, Kawamura and Orange County Produce bid on a proposal to farm about 100 acres in the park.
Originally, he said the county envisioned agriculture as an interim land use.
But Kawamura, being the visionary that he is, had more in mind.
“What we’re going to do here is to build a platform for 21st century ag,” he said.
Through his worldwide connections with groups such as Solutions From the Land, the American Farmland Trust and 25x’25, Kawamura drafted a blueprint.
For example, he began working with a colleague to develop an integrated biofuel system where algae for biodiesel is raised in conjunction with fish and hydroponic lettuce.
Eventually, Kawamura said he hoped to go off-grid, using only energy produced on the farm.
The farm is divided into 10-acre blocks, each featuring a different crop family.
Kawamura returned to his childhood, remembering how the family used to grow about 25 crops.
As the years went by and markets tightened, Orange County Produce narrowed production to strawberries and green beans because of marketing windows.
Those older crops have been resurrected at the park.
Most of the produce is sold at local farmers’ markets or into commercial channels, he said.
What’s helped Orange County Produce and this endeavor succeed is consumers’ growing interest in locally grown produce, Kawamura said. In addition, all of the park’s produce is grown organically as are about 40% of the commercial operations.
“Customers are getting more savvy,” he said.
“Growers are getting more savvy. People will find the market, and you have some really innovative producers creating a market.”
The next phase will be to convert an old canal into an integrated biofuel system and waterway. Walkways will follow the canal, and avocado and other fruit trees planted along the paths will shade visitors.
It will be fun to return in a couple of years to see how this 21st century farm and the Great Park as a whole have evolved and matured.
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