Publication Date

December 1, 2009

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

Visitors to San Diego—especially those flying from the east over the desert mountains and looking down on city sprawl—may be surprised to learn that agriculture has always been one of the top-grossing sectors of the county’s economy. This achievement has required intensive cultivation of specialized crops, and has involved moral and environmental costs associated with dependence on the poorly paid labor of Mexican migrants, heavy use of transported water, and the overapplication of pesticides and fertilizers. The region thus fits within the larger patterns of California agriculture. Nonetheless, San Diego County has created a successful niche for itself as a producer of avocados, flowers, palms, and other exotic landscaping plants. Agriculture in San Diego is historically interesting not just because of its economic importance, but also because it represents a distinctive kind of farming—one that grows for an upscale consumer market, and that emerged partly in response to a vision of a subtropical paradise promoted by early city boosters.

Of course, given its mild climate and generally receptive soils, there has been no shortage of conventional agricultural products cultivated in the San Diego region. The area missions had success with grain, and later the ranchos’ cattle herds made a major contribution to the “hide and tallow” trade of the mid-19th century. Immigrants arriving in the late 19th century established thriving dairy operations, and north of the city became a center of lima bean production. San Diego followed the rest of Southern California into citrus, with the eponymous Lemon Grove as a prosperous agricultural suburb. In the hills east of San Diego, around the small town of Ramona, egg production flourished, and Ramona in the 1930s also called itself the “turkey capital of the world.” As rail shipping connections improved and reservoirs allowed more extensive irrigation, crops timed to hit markets during the winter became a crucial part of the local economy. Production received a major boost in the early 20th century when Japanese immigrants moved to the area. In addition to crops such as peppers, melons, and strawberries, Issei farmers introduced celery to the Chula Vista area, just south of the city. The crop’s successful shipping to eastern markets boosted Chula Vista’s own claim of world commodity supremacy, as “celery capital of the world.” The tragic disruption of the Japanese immigrant farming community that occurred with World War II internment, as well as the rapid expansion of suburban development stimulated by the war and defense industries, brought an abrupt end to booster claims concerning more conventional crops. Today, winter cultivation of strawberries and tomatoes persists, and Japanese American farm families such as the renowned Chinos in Rancho Santa Fe continue to grow exquisite produce, but these crops go to limited, if high-end, markets, and few claim world leadership.

Remaining nationally prominent were lucrative products that suited land developers’ promotion of San Diego as an edenic refuge. Nurserywoman Kate Sessions, who played a major role in landscaping Balboa Park, worked with developers to import and plant such flora as fan palms, mock orange bushes, and bird of paradise flowers, adding an exotic lushness to otherwise drab new subdivisions. Her influence helped create a domestic market for other horticulturalists, who began growing these plants to sell on a larger scale. One of the flowers Sessions helped introduce to the area was the winter blooming “Christmas flower,” the poinsettia. Another grower, Paul Ecke, well understood the holiday appeal of this flower to eastern winter markets. He focused on the poinsettia’s extensive cultivation north of San Diego, in Encinitas, becoming the “poinsettia king.” Ecke was joined by growers of other cut flowers and potted plants, especially after World War II, when new greenhouse technology allowed a more intensive and varied production, and rapid shipping allowed the national delivery of fresh bouquets. The presence of these growers led the region to claim one more agricultural crown: Encinitas as “flower capital of the world.” Ecke poinsettias are still based in Encinitas, but unfortunately, like all previous agricultural capitals in San Diego, Encinitas’s claims for floral prominence have disappeared as residential development has proven more lucrative than greenhouses.

Avocado growing was also influenced by real estate development, when boosters imported avocado trees from Mexico in the 1920s and sold thousands of acres of orchards by promising a wealthy and leisurely lifestyle growing an exotic new fruit. While most of these orchards were subsequently cut down, avocado production surmounted its origins in real estate fantasy, slowly building a national market. Orchard development eventually centered in the north of San Diego County around the town of Fallbrook, where avocados became one of the county’s highest-grossing crops.

San Diego County’s current national leadership in avocado growing and the production of flowers and ornamental plants demonstrates the influence of marketing that linked California with exotic products, suburban fulfillment, and ever-blooming landscapes. Whether the county’s agriculture can continue to supply this California dream, while at the same time surviving its side effects—rampant residential and commercial development and excessive water use—remains uncertain.

Jeff Charles is an associate professor of history at California State University, San Marcos. He is the author of Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions and is currently working on a history of small farming in California.