Times Past

The Central Coast was once the flower seed capitol of the world

Postcard of flower fields with burlap bags to save the seeds in the Lompoc Valley in 1965.
Postcard of flower fields with burlap bags to save the seeds in the Lompoc Valley in 1965.

W. C. Fields mispronounced Lompoc as “lom-pock” in the 1940 classic, “The Bank Dick.” But something less funny is happening there today.

“One of the Lompoc Valley’s oldest agriculture businesses is set to call it quits this spring, creating some sadness among area food providers who had come to rely on its local products,” reports the Lompoc Record.

Lompoc Valley Seed and Milling Co. will shut its doors in May.

The owner, Bob Campbell, attributed the closure to the decline of the local dry bean and seeds industry. In the 1950s, the company cleaned, packed and shipped 10 to 14 million pounds of seeds per year.

Dry bean and seed farming were once staples of Central Coast agriculture beginning in the late 1700s.

Franciscan missionaries traded seeds with Native Americans and consumed lots of beans. A document in the National Historical Archives in Madrid describes the supplies sent for the first Spanish settlements in Alta, California, including 4,700 pounds of chickpeas (garbanzo beans), 3,000 pounds of lentils and 3,000 pounds of beans!

Fields of legumes were planted at each mission. They grew extraordinarily well at San Luis Obispo and San Miguel.

Beans formed an important part of the diet before refrigeration because dried beans could be kept for long periods, were relatively light in weight and highly nutritious. The missions relied on their own seed farms. After secularization, this industry was lost, only to be reconstituted out of necessity in the early American period.

Chinese merchant and labor contractor Ah Louis had a large seed farm in the Edna Valley along what is now Biddle Ranch Road. A mass of brush, fallen trees and reeds obstructed the Arroyo Grande Creek. As result, it overflowed and covered the entire valley in rainy years.

The flooding left layers of loam and vegetation more than 20 feet thick, resulting in some of the richest soil in the world.

Red Bottle Brush in Lompoc seed fields c. 1965.jpg
Lompoc Valley fields of red bottle brush at their peak in 1965. Courtesy photo

The narrow gage Pacific Coast Railway linked Arroyo Grande to what is now Port San Luis in 1881, making shipment of produce easier. It quickly became the second largest town in the county. W. Atlee Burpee’s famed seed company grew Iceberg lettuce in Arroyo Grande, revolutionizing the salad industry. Henry Sperry turned his 1,400-acre ranch into a seed farm.

Thanks to federal agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, massive flooding was lessened and the valley became an agricultural paradise.

Bean production peaked during World War I when America fed much of war-ravaged Europe. The price of cleaned navy beans, which was subsidized under war emergency measures, rose from 1 1/2 cents a pound to nearly 30 cents a pound. Previously untilled pasture land was quickly turned to bean production.

Flower seeds were part of this agricultural boom. When the wartime needs for beans eclipsed floral production in San Luis Obispo County, the flower seed industry moved to the Lompoc Valley. By 1901, Lompoc had direct access to the Southern Pacific Coastline. The one-time Temperance Colony of Lompoc quickly became the flower seed capital of the world.

Thanks to the vagaries of global agriculture, Lompoc can no longer make that claim. But the Arroyo Grande and Los Oso valleys and Nipomo still treat us to vast fields of colorful flowers in bloom. All Seasons Flowers in Nipomo, which supplied red, white and blue flowers for George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration, has grown to encompass 2,500,000 square feet.

SLO library’s annual book sale

You can help sow the seeds of democracy by going to the San Luis Obispo library’s annual book sale March 7-9 at the Veterans Hall in SLO. Expanded hours include a members-only sale from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 7; memberships are available at the door. Everyone is welcome 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, March 8, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 9.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is Past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.