When San Juan Capistrano boots Ignacio Lujano from his orange groves, OC's Citrus Era will officially end
Summer is almost here, which means county residents are enjoying anew their most fundamental pleasure: the sight and smell of Valencia orange trees ready for harvesting.
Sure, the days when they occupied thousands of acres in uniform rows are long gone, but it doesn't matter if you're in North County or South, Seal Beach or Rancho Santa Margarita: Drive around for a bit, and you'll undoubtedly spot one. Across the land, from private back yards to community parks, fenced-off lots to arboretums, the large, irregularly shaped trees spread across the sky, their waxy leaves reflecting the sun, creating a halo around the fruits hanging from branches, swollen with juice.
Perhaps the unlikeliest locale is 150 feet to the west of Interstate 5, just north of the Junipero Serra Road exit. Here, in defiance of development and modernity, Ignacio Lujano has tended about 40 acres for the past 38 years.
"This place would've been nice around this time of year," says Alex Lujano. He's giving a personal tour of his father's farm, a stunning expanse called the Swanner Ranch that is currently owned by the city of San Juan Capistrano and hidden by foliage from Santa Ana Freeway commuters. Around him are fruit trees, and not just citrus. Pears, avocados and figs are ripe for picking next to Ignacio's house, a wooden structure painted in a retina-searing color Alex generously refers to as "Tijuana blue." Grasslands stretch toward soft, rolling hills, their tops crested by million-dollar Laguna Niguel homes. Separating the groves from the hills is Oso Creek; at night, Alex swears, you can hear the moans and wails of the White Lady, the mournful ghost who wanders the city, San Juan Capistrano's version of La Llorona.
Alex sits in the shade of a patio topped with blooming vines. The roar of cars on I-5 is so close he has to speak at club-worthy decibels. On a table, Alex has meticulously placed dockets of leases, deeds and contracts that bind his papi to the property.
Ignacio waddles by a couple of minutes later. Eighty-five years on the planet have cost him the cartilage in both of his knees, but otherwise, the viejito is surprisingly fit. His skin is a deep brown, with the ruddiness that only decades working under the sun can bestow. Thick, gray locks of hair sprout from his head. Ignacio's midsection is round, plump and healthy, his eyes lucid and penetrating.
He was busy giving a tour of his beloved Valencias to a visitor, but Ignacio Lujano's mood is dour, almost apologetic. The trees are at various stages of life: Some are mature and laden with fruit, others are young saplings. But the majority of Lujano's botanical wards are dying: yellowing leaves, decayed branches. On the ground are rotting oranges whose sweet scent fills the afternoon air. Weeds choke the path where irrigation canals once nourished.
"It makes me embarrassed to see these trees die, but there's nothing I can do," Lujano grumbles.
Despite the Lujano family's protestations, San Juan Capistrano officials are preparing to uproot the orange groves to build a maintenance yard. They've given him 90 days to vacate the Swanner Ranch. And when Lujano leaves, Orange County's orange-growing industry will have finally, truly ended—not with a bang, but with withered, forgotten trees.
* * *
Orange County owes its riches, its national repute, almost everything to the Citrus sinensis: the orange tree, specifically the Valencia variety. It's the county's heritage, in the foreground of the county seal, on ugly concrete pillars that connect sound walls along the 22 Freeway. It was their sweet pulp that enticed a nation with visions of Southern California at the turn of the 19th Century, their crate labels that mythologized this place as a perpetual Eden to the rest of the United States, its industry that employed thousands and brought in millions of dollars in revenue to the county, their picturesque beauty that greeted tens of thousands of servicemen who arrived in Orange County during World War II, their paved-over acres that allowed developers to build the American Dream for the Greatest Generation. The need for workers to pick oranges addicted Orange County to cheap Mexican labor (including this writer's great-grandfather and grandfather, who arrived in Anaheim in 1918) and triggered the 1936 Citrus War, the closest the county has had to a civil war. Orange fortunes created religious movements, funded politicians, influenced lives. If it weren't for oranges, we'd be Fresno.
And now, there are fewer than 100 acres left, almost all boutique orchards kept by owners as some perverse living historical monument. Thirty acres stand near Featherly Regional Park in Anaheim; five acres at Santiago Oaks; about six to 10 in Irvine. Small groves are fenced off across the street from the Anaheim Police Station, the Kimberly-Clark campus in Fullerton, and next to the San Juan Capistrano Mission Inn. The rest are scattered across Orange County, mostly out of sight, mostly out of mind.
County residents have long-forgotten the days of King Citrus, if ever they experienced the era. But the orange tree still weighs heavily on the county's character.
Oranges did not give Orange County its name, as civic lore maintains—rather, it was the idea of the fruit. In 1881, Anaheim attorney Victor Montgomery crafted the secession bill that eventually broke the county from Los Angeles. He proposed naming the new entity Orange because the name, "emblazoned upon the map of our state, would, in my opinion, have more effect in drawing the tide of emigrants to this section than all the pamphlets, agents and other endeavors which have hitherto proved so futile."
At the time of Montgomery's proposal, the region had already proved a cornucopia that could support any number of livestock and produce but still wasn't sold on oranges. The county had gone through booms and busts brought by real-estate speculation and the unforgiving whims of Mother Nature: A prolonged drought killed thousands of cattle during the 1860s, blight destroyed the county's grapevines in 1886, and floods two years earlier ruined fortunes.
But with oranges, county businessmen discovered a sturdy crop that served as a testament to their ingenuity. "The men and women who came to California in those early days to engage in citrus culture had indomitable courage, for they were tackling a thing that no one had yet succeeded at; an industry still in its swaddling clothes; how it would turn out none knew," wrote A.D. Bishop in "Establishing the Orange Industry," an entry in 1931's Orange County History Series, Vol. I.
The oranges were seen as proof of the county's superiority to other American regions—indeed, the world.
"The Divine hand has been lavish in bestowing upon all Southern California, and upon Orange County in particular, rare natural advantages, perhaps greater than those enjoyed by any other section over which the flag floats," wrote Charles C. Chapman in a 1911 history of the young industry.
"Our climate is faultless," Fullerton's first mayor and the name behind Chapman University continued. "In fact, it is not too much to say that as to fertility of soil, the charming climate and the scenery with its grandeur and beauty, it is not surpassed the world around."
Citrus farming reached its peak in 1948, when more than 67,000 acres of Valencias alone—about 13 percent of the county's total land—covered Orange County.
Soon after that, however, the once-hallowed orange groves became a burden. Taxes and the demand for housing convinced growers to sell off their lands to developers, who quickly plowed the land in favor of tract housing. A mysterious disease known as quick decline but more popularly referred to as la tristeza ("the sadness" in Spanish) killed thousands of trees within years, hastening the death of the orange industry. Any concern about conserving some acres for posterity's sake was pushed aside—besides, the thinking went, there were more than enough groves to go around.
Nevertheless, county chronologists lamented the passing of King Citrus. In 1963's Historical Volume and Reference Works: Including Biographical Sketches of Leading Citizens, a three-volume compendium of Orange County history, author Mildred Yorba MacArthur wrote an essay titled "The Vanishing Orange?" Calling Orange County "the land of disappearing citrus groves," she longed for the days "when an orange was something to be eaten, not poured from a can." At the time, though, there were still more than 28,000 acres of Valencias left. She held out hope that South County—still largely rural then—might "keep the citrus industry alive for many years."
* * *
The story of how Lujano came to tend some of Orange County's last orange groves is in many ways the story of South County itself.
Lujano was born in 1923 in Holbrook, Arizona, but was raised in Mexico. He migrated to the United States alongside his brother in March 1958; each had 10 pesos in his pocket. Upon crossing the Mexican border, the Lujanos bought bus tickets and told the driver to drop them off as far as the 10 pesos could take them. The ride stopped in San Juan Capistrano.
At the time, it was still very much a mission town, cut off, along with San Clemente, from the rest of Orange County by miles and miles of agricultural fields and untamed hills, linked to suburbia only by U.S. Route 101 (now Interstate 5). Farming was still the main industry in town, and the Lujanos quickly found work. Word of Ignacio's gift for cultivation spread around the tight-knit community, and he worked for all the major farmers in the city—the Bathgates, the Kinoshitas, among others. He eventually settled with the Rosenbaum family, which owned a massive ranch in the northern end of San Juan Capistrano.
Ignacio stayed there even after his brother left for Los Angeles. "The land was beautiful," he recalls. "It was so peaceful and fresh. Trees and crops everywhere. The air was like no other air I had ever breathed. Once I got here, I knew I never wanted to leave."
The Rosenbaums employed him until 1970, when they decided to sell the ranch. Unfortunately, they didn't give Lujano much warning. "One day, one of the Rosenbaums called me into his office and said, 'Ignacio, you're a great worker, and we thank you for all your years helping us. But we're going to close the ranch. Here's your last paycheck.' With that, I was out of a job."
By then, Lujano had five children; the prospect of raising them without a job was frightening. But he remembered an employment offer made years earlier by Charles Swanner, a Santa Ana attorney whose family owned a ranch across Interstate 5 from the Rosenbaums. The day after the Rosenbaums dismissed him, Lujano showed up at the Swanner Ranch and reminded Charles about his promise. The lawyer kept his word: He fired a foreman on the spot and replaced him with Lujano. "I felt bad for the guy I replaced, but I had a family to feed!" he says with a laugh.
The Swanner Ranch was historic even then. It originally belonged to Richard Egan, an Irish immigrant credited with helping to bring the railroads to Orange County. He planted orange trees, some of which still stand. Afterward, the ranch was acquired by Roger Y. Williams, a former Orange County district attorney and Superior Court judge. The Swanners bought the land in the 1950s.
Lujano and his family moved into a house on the southern side of the Swanner Ranch; the Swanners kept one toward the north that they rarely inhabited. Charles and his brother Roger hired Lujano to oversee all aspects of their Valencias, from planting new trees to fumigating to ensuring thieves didn't come in the middle of night and steal oranges. He pulled weeds, dug irrigation ditches and listened to KFI-AM 640 every night at 7 p.m. for its frost report, so he'd know whether to light a smudge pot to protect the orchards. And when spring came and the trees sagged with the weight of their fruit, Lujano enlisted his children to pick the oranges.
The Swanners visited only sporadically during the next 20 years, leaving the ranch largely to the Lujanos. Alex remembers a wonderful childhood mitigated by rural realities. "Growing up, we didn't have potable water," he says. "We'd have to get our water pumped to a water tank that didn't always work."
The family could've moved somewhere else, but Ignacio preferred the simple life. "It was better to have them running around breathing the free air, so they wouldn't want to be running around on the streets," he says.
By the end of the 1980s, San Juan Capistrano officials began pressuring the Swanners to sell the ranch to the city as part of an effort to secure more open space. Without any proof, council members began insinuating to residents that the Swanners planned to sell off their holdings to developers.
"Here's the alternative. Look right over that ridge," TheOrange County Register quoted then-mayor Gary L. Hausdorfer in 1989, arguing why the city should buy out the Swanners. He pointed at the hills next to the ranch, where Laguna Niguel tracts loomed. "People need housing and jobs, but they also need open space. They need someplace to wander around or ride a horse. I believe it just has to be good for everybody's mental health." In another interview, Hausdorfer told a reporter the Swanner Ranch should become public land because "most kids have never been close enough to an orange tree to see an orange on it."
In 1989, residents united as San Juan Citizens for Open Space. The chairperson was Marlene Draper, then a private citizen but now better known as one of the embattled Capistrano Valley Unified School District trustees who face a recall election June 24. The group placed a $20 million bond on the 1990 ballot to buy farmland; the measure passed. The following year, the city used some of that money to buy the Swanner Ranch from its owners for $6.95 million.
At the time, Roger Swanner let orange trees die as a protest against the city's chokehold. But before he gave up the land, Roger made sure Lujano would be able to stay. He negotiated a month-to-month agreement that made his trusted worker a city employee. The contract stated Lujano would give "services consisting of maintenance of orchards and structures" to the Swanner Ranch. The city would pay for water and nothing else.
In a May 25, 1993, letter, Swanner wrote to Lujano, "I appreciate your taking such good care of the Ranch for 23 years. If you have any problems with the city and you need my help, please give me a call or write to me. I will be glad to do what I can to help." (Swanner could not be reached for comment for this story. But Ignacio and Alex Lujano say he has called San Juan Capistrano officials on their behalf, to no avail.)
City planners unveiled grandiose plans for athletic fields, a senior-citizens' center, community garden, bike and horse paths, and a Juaneño Indian museum. They also vowed to keep an orange grove as a historical marker.
In 1994, the city won a $1 million California Transportation Authority grant to beautify the Swanner Ranch. "It's a very interesting parcel. It's really one of the last remaining vestiges of Orange County history," Sharon Heider, the city's open-space project manager, told the Register. "We plan to use the money to rehabilitate orchards, add new landscaping and remove old plants that were degrading the historic landscape. The idea is to retain portions of it as it looked long ago and improve others."
But nothing happened for 14 years. In the meantime, the city began restricting Lujano's dominion over the orange groves. According to the Lujanos, the city made him contract out the orange picking to a private company and didn't allow him to use smudge pots, arguing they were harmful to the environment. Officials also made him switch pesticides—"All they were good for was killing everything instead of just weeds," he complained.
His 13 children grew up and moved away but returned every Sunday with their kids—his designated day off—to lounge on the ranch like the old days. It's a tradition they'll continue until Dad is booted off for good.
In February 2007, the city declared the Swanner House a historical landmark and placed it on the National Register of Historic Places, saving it from the wrecking ball. The Lujanos were there, and they received kind words from city officials for keeping the Swanner Ranch in such good shape over the decades. But three months later, San Juan Capistrano assistant city manager Cindy Russell surprised Ignacio with a letter stating, "The city has been evaluating the situation and has concluded that it is time to terminate this agreement." They gave the octogenarian 60 days to leave.
Lujano was shocked. He had been under the impression that there was no time limit on how long he could stay with his orange groves. "I want to stay here until I die," he says. "I can still work the oranges. I might not get around as fast as I once did, but I know them—I know what to do. Besides, I was promised I could stay."
On this point, the ravages of time seem to betray Lujano. In one breath, he says he and his son Roy signed a document attesting to the agreement, a document he can't find; a couple of minutes later, he says the deal was done with a city administrator "bigote a bigote"—"mustache to mustache," a handshake contract. "My dad doesn't lie," Alex says. "He's of the old school."
Lujano and his sons immediately went to city planners, who said they had no record of their claim. They must have talked to the right people, though, because San Juan Capistrano planners didn't press Lujano until November, when they cut him one final check. Over the ensuing months, they've taken away his tractor and other tools. They're now giving him 90 more days before he must leave for good.
Asked for comment, Russell referred the Weekly to Kelly Tokarski, a public-relations agent contracted by the city to handle media inquiries. She asked the Weekly to submit questions via e-mail and responded via the same method.
"The city is not bound by oral agreements," Tokarski wrote. "City agreements must be in writing." She said San Juan Capistrano's open-space master plan called for the Swanner Ranch to become a maintenance yard for the city's open space and that "this is still the intended use."
* * *
A city truck rumbles through the Swanner Ranch. Ignacio Lujano looks on in disgust. "My dad says it's wrong: leaving one tree to die at a time," Alex says.
"These new guys don't know how to take care of anything," Ignacio sneers. "They'll try to irrigate all the trees at once, and all they get is a drizzle of water that evaporates before it soaks into the ground."
Alex and his brothers have talked to every city official they can get on the phone, begging them to let their elderly father pass away on the ranch he so loves. Though sympathetic, council members, city staff and lawyers all tell them the same thing: Without a written contract, they have no case. Tokarski says San Juan Capistrano has been more than charitable with Lujano.
"The city originally gave Mr. Lujano 90 days' notice to vacate in May 2007 and has been working with him since that time," she wrote in her e-mail. "The city will provide 90 days' notice even though the agreement allows for 60 days."
As it stands, Lujano must vacate the Swanner Ranch by Aug. 14. If he doesn't, according to a May 15 letter sent by San Juan Capistrano city manager Dave Adams, the city will "initiate legal proceedings against you to recover possession of the premises and to seek a judgment for damages for each day of occupancy after the expiration date of this notice, including statutory damages, costs and attorney fees." Ignacio isn't sure which child will take him in.
It's a miracle the ranch survived as an orange grove as long as it did. Just down Camino Capistrano is JSerra Catholic High School. To the north is the Crystal Cathedral-owned Rancho Capistrano. Development is everywhere. The once-untouchable lands of South County are now fair game.
Without the protection of developers, nothing is sacred in Orange County. Ironically, the bad housing market might keep those few remaining orange groves around for a couple of years, according to Mike Bennett, Orange County's deputy agricultural commissioner. "Some of the developers are holding back on putting in houses," he says. "That's still premium land, where the crops are."
But he also doesn't blame farmers for leveling groves, nostalgia or not. "There's no money in oranges," he says. "The payoff for oranges is so pathetically minimal that farmers can hardly get their money back."
It's telling, then, that perhaps the most secure orange trees in Orange County are also the most inaccessible: The 30 acres of orange groves on the Coto de Caza estate of William Lyon, the mega-developer whose homes stand on the soil that nurtured so many oranges.
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Their setting is immaculate: along Coto de Caza Drive, behind a white wooden fence, in equidistant rows that surround Lyon's Southern-style mansion. All of the trees are healthy and waiting for hands to pick their crop. Once in a while, middle-aged Latino men poke out of the rows, examining the groves as cars zoom by. But to actually walk among the trees, you must first get a pass to enter Coto de Caza, then another one that allows you to walk onto Lyon's estate.
Lyon doesn't need the orchards—he's made his billions. They're not even native to Coto, which was mostly grassy badlands when development in the community began after the 1984 Olympics. But when Lyon had his 120-acre property built in the late 1980s, he had the orange trees planted. Why? Lyon has never talked about the subject, and he was unavailable for comment on this story.
So, Lyon's orange trees stand, simultaneously hidden and in the open. A living, breathing, private museum to the chapter of Orange County history that will end when Ignacio Lujano leaves the Swanner Ranch.