When people think of agriculture in North County, conversation usually heads toward avocados, citrus and flowers. Not many know that before the area had access to fresh water, lima beans were the go-to crop for early settlers.The San Dieguito Heritage Museum celebrates this history Sept. 29 with their annual Lima Bean Faire. I should note that the event is now open to all beans, which really expands the culinary options and as a judge this year I’m very excited about that.
To learn more about lima beans in the area and the fair, I sat down with local history expert Will Nesbitt, executive director of the San Dieguito Heritage Museum. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Lick the Plate: So it turns out lima beans play a key part in the survival of the early pioneers in coastal North County. What is the story behind this?
Will Nesbitt: In 1862, the U.S. government passed the Homestead Act, which gave free land to Americans that would travel to the West. If you went west, made a claim and paid a fee to the federal government, then stayed on your land and improved it over a period of five years, you would get 160 acres free.
In the 1880s, pioneers came to the area to homestead and many thought that the land would be arable for all sorts of crops. There was even a group of German immigrants who were deceived by land promoters who claimed that olive trees were growing east of Encinitas. Olivenhain was established.
The truth of the matter was that the soil was not particularly rich and the local climate was semi-arid desert. Certainly olive trees don’t grow readily. Consequently, the crops that many pioneers first grew failed.
For those that stayed after the disappointment of poor farmland, a crop was needed that they could dry farm (without irrigation) and was hearty enough to survive long stretches without much moisture. Enter the lima bean.
Farmers found that lima beans grew readily along the coastal strip. It was found that the lima grew easily because it used the moisture from the foggy ocean air during parts of the year.
LTP: As irrigation became more prevalent in the area, what crops took the place of the lima bean and which are still being farmed today?
WN: Irrigation came to the area after the building of Lake Hodges Dam in 1918. The most important crop that came to Encinitas was flowers led by Paul Ecke in 1923. He came from Los Angeles and decided to buy land in Encinitas because it was so cheap. After Ecke, many flower growers came to the area. There are still Ecke greenhouses and others but many growers moved operations to Central America because of labor costs. There are a few patches of flowers being grown today but not nearly as much as in the past.
LTP: This year, the Lima Bean Faire has expanded to include all beans. That really opens up the field. Who are some of the more notable contestants and what type of recipes have been submitted in the past?
WN: We have had Brett from Brett’s BBQ participate for many years. Aaron from the Flying Pig Restaurant in Oceanside participated last year. The executive chef from Scripps Hospital and the head chef at Garcia’s Mexican Cuisine has been with use for a few years. There have been lima bean cookies, lima bean salads, and soups to name a few.
LTP: What else can attendees of the Lima Bean Faire expect?
WN: The Lima Bean Faire will have tastings for everyone that wants to rediscover how good lima beans can be. Five dollars will get you three tastes. Fifteen dollars will get you unlimited tastes. This money will help support the San Dieguito Heritage Museum. Other activities will include the Bluegrass band, the Tail Draggers, a bake sale, a raffle with amazing prizes and a kid’s area with activities.
LTP: The San Dieguito Heritage Museum plays an important role in telling the history of this area and relies primarily on private contributions. What’s new at the museum and how can people get involved and donate?
WN: The San Dieguito Heritage Museum really relies on individuals to keep history alive by keeping our doors open. New initiatives include an exhibit about the La Paloma Theatre that will come Nov. 1. Also we are about to place a temporary exhibit hall on the property that will allow us to expand our ability to put up new exhibits.
People that want to support our museum can make a donation through our website. They can also become a member of the museum and keep up on all the changes.
Lick the Plate can now be heard on KPRi, 102.1 FM Monday-Friday during the 7pm hour.
David Boylan is founder of Artichoke Creative and Artichoke Apparel, an Encinitas based marketing firm and clothing line. Reach him at email@example.com or (858) 395-6905.