California family creates an ag-centered community in response to urbanization

Lissa Freese remembers the days when seeing a car driving onto Rancho Mission Viejo would have been rare. Today, it’s just part of business on the 23,000-acre operation in Orange County, California.

Rancho Mission Viejo is one of the last working ranches and the largest lemon producer in the county. It’s also an “agrihood.”

The O’Neill/Moiso/Avery family, which has owned and operated the land since the 1880s, has embraced encroaching urbanization by becoming developers themselves in a way that extends their agricultural heritage to the public.

Family and neighbors

Freese moved to the ranch as a young girl in 1967, when her father, Gilbert Aguirre, was offered a job by the ranch founder’s grandson, Richard J. O’Neill, who managed the land with his sister Alice O’Neill (Moiso) Avery and her son Tony Moiso. At his death in 2009, O’Neill passed management on to Moiso.

Aguirre, now 86, is Moiso’s longest tenured employee. He continues to oversee the ranch’s agricultural operations — primarily beef cattle, citrus, and avocados. Freese, who returned to the ranch after college, now takes care of day-to-day operations. Her son, Brent Freese, manages the cow-calf operations.

In some ways, things haven’t changed. The working pens on the ranch are ones Aguirre built decades ago, and there have always been early mornings and cattle to tend. In other ways, the ranch has seen significant transformation, and not just with the incorporation of artificial insemination and electronic record keeping.

While Freese was growing up, the only people who lived on the ranch were the O’Neill/Moiso/Avery family and the families of their employees. Freese remembers trips to town as a big deal, with neighbors picking up food and supplies for each other.

But Orange County’s population was rapidly expanding. The largest jump, 225%, occurred from 1950 to 1960. The population tripled again from 1960 to 2000, increasing from 703,925 to 2,846,289 people.

Building community

Beginning in the 1960s, the O’Neill/Moiso/Avery family decided to enter the development arena. They joined with partners and built the communities of Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Las Flores, and Ladera Ranch using portions of the ranch, which originally exceeded 200,000 acres until the U.S. Navy purchased land to build Camp Pendleton in the 1940s. The family built numerous regional parks and wilderness areas and about 31,000 homes.

There was still need for more housing. In 2004, the family finalized plans on the remaining 23,000 acres, keeping a focus on agriculture and ranching operations.

About 75% of the land will ultimately become part of The Nature Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo, a compilation of conservation easements and conservancies that will protect the land against further development. The Nature Reserve will provide habitat for native wildlife and plants as well as opportunities for education and recreation for residents and the public. Some of the land will continue to serve as working ranchland and agricultural fields.

The remaining 25% will be available for five noncontiguous villages with up to 14,000 homes. The first two villages, Sendero and Esencia, opened in 2013 and 2015, respectively. The first phase of Rienda, the largest of the villages, opened last year.

Amaya Genaro, Rancho Mission Viejo’s vice president of community services, describes the villages as “land forms” surrounded by The Nature Reserve. They are interspersed with 1.5 acres of community farms and agriculture-based streetscapes (think 2,000-plus fruit trees lining streets) along with views of ranchlands and orchards.

“We wanted to, early on, ensure that the agricultural legacy is perpetuated throughout the villages,” Genaro says.

Beautiful day in the 'Agrihood'

Rancho Mission Viejo is one of at least 90 agrihoods identified by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in 2019. ULI defines agrihoods as “single-family, multifamily, or mixed-use communities built with a working farm or community garden as a focus.”

It’s an approach to development that offers landowners opportunities to preserve farmland and natural lands while diversifying. It also brings the public closer to agriculture.

“At one point, everybody says agrihoods were a trend,” Genaro says. “I think they’re here to stay. Continued research shows that millennials, and Gen Z’s coming up, want access to fresh food and a healthier lifestyle.”

People are attracted to living close to nature, she adds, especially in bustling, high-stress areas.

The farms are another draw. One surveyed resident said: “Love the home and community, but the farm was a unique and exciting idea and the ultimate reason for moving here.”

About 110 to 145 households sign up as volunteer “resident farmers” for the community farms. They learn from and help professional farm staff plant, maintain, and harvest produce, as well as attend special workshops and events.

Educational programming and bringing neighbors together are the community farms’ primary motives.

“There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a mom with her 2-year-old who eats a carrot for the first time after digging it up from a U-pick patch,” Genaro says. “Or the 5-year-old who shows me how to compost. That’s what we’re really getting at. We are trying to teach our children where food comes from.”

Residents can also see commercial-scale production on the ranch. Each year, they have the opportunity to tour “Cow Camp,” the ranching operation’s headquarters, where horses are worked and cattle are kept when not on pasture. Participants tour the barns, see livestock, and learn how cattle are loaded into trucks.

Another event brings residents to the orchards, where they see citrus fruit in different stages of production.

“It’s a great story to tell young people in Orange County,” Freese says. “[We’re able to say] ‘Here’s a little lemon tree, here’s a big lemon tree, and the lemon you saw at Gelson’s … comes from dirt.’”

Culture of care

Underlying everything at Rancho Mission Viejo is what Genaro calls a “culture of care.” She says the agrihood helps residents build community and overall wellness by promoting the kind of neighborly lifestyle ranching families have enjoyed on this land for more than a century.

Residents can be “good neighbors” through a variety of activities, including an annual rodeo, which has raised $2.6 million for local charities in the past 20 years, and resident-led philanthropic activities.

For Freese, growing up on the ranch and being part of its evolution has been an honor.

“We have such a luxury … that our leader wants to have housing because Orange County desperately needs it,” Freese says. “But as much as he wants that, he wants [residents] to see that when you look out your window, you’re going to see an orchard, you’re going to see cows, you’re going to see what really makes the Earth go around.”


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