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Orchard Sends No 'Lemons' to Finicky Japanese Markets

January 05, 1997|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Hatsuko Oba, a housewife in Kawasaki, Japan, goes shopping for the perfect lemon, she chooses Sunkist. And although she does not know it, chances are the perfectly curved, perfectly yellow, flawless lemon that she selects from the produce section of her local Yokado Supermarket came from Ventura County.

From cars to perfumes to Gucci handbags, the Japanese have a refined sense of the kata--or ideal form--any object should have. And when it comes to lemons, the Japanese are willing to pay top dollar for lemons the likes of which many American shoppers may never see on their local supermarket shelves.

The bulk of those perfect lemons come from Ventura County. Literally thousands of cartons--marked in Japanese characters that read sunkisto remon (Sunkist lemon)--begin their long journey to the land of the rising sun from the sprawling Limoneira orchards in Santa Paula.

Although all Sunkist growers use Sunkist cartons, each packinghouse has its own trademark. In Ventura County, first choice lemons from Limoneira in Santa Paula are called "Santas." They go out in crates with a colorful label of a Santa Claus. The second-grade lemons are known as "Paulas." Their labels show a seductive Spanish woman with a fan.

Japan gets almost all "Santas." The United States ends up with a lot of "Paulas."

"Our absolute highest quality stuff goes to Japan," says Pierre Tada, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Limoneira Co. "We don't send anything to Japan that isn't perfect."

By value, Ventura County is the largest producer of lemons in California, and California is the largest producer in the United States, according to Kerry Bustamonte, deputy agricultural commissioner for Ventura County. And Limoneira is the largest lemon grower in the area.

As of 1995, the county had 26,630 acres of lemon groves, producing a crop valued at $197 million, according to an annual report compiled by the county agricultural commissioner. In all the world, only Argentina produces more lemons--but they still have quality and disease problems, Tada says.

About 40% of Limoneira's lemons go to the Pacific Rim, according to Tada--reaching consumers as far away as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore.

But it is Japan that is the most finicky. "Japanese are the pickiest of all--and not by a little, by a lot," Tada says. "They really want the best stuff."

Ventura's cool sea breezes and temperate coastal climate allow growers to produce high-quality lemons year-round.

Limoneira's links to Japan go back to the company's earliest days. In photos of the lemon groves from the 1890s, dozens of Japanese can be seen among the sun-tanned faces of the pickers.

Today, Japanese businessmen visit Limoneira's scenic plant regularly. Tada, himself a third-generation Japanese-American, speaks fluent Japanese as he wines and dines his corporate clients who hail from some of Japan's most famed trading companies, including Mitsubishi, Nikko Seika and Nikko Boeki.

The Limoneira company is a founding member of the huge Sunkist marketing cooperative--supplying Sunkist with a substantial portion of its lemons. Sunkist ships 3.9 million cartons of lemons to Japan every year: 3.8 million of those are first choice--the top grade of lemons. This compares with only 4.8 million cartons of first choice lemons that stay in the United States--which has twice the population of Japan.

More than half of the top-grade lemons that Sunkist packs into giant refrigerator ships--a whopping 2.1 million cartons--originate in Ventura.

So what is the perfect lemon?

Leading the way through Limoneira's sophisticated sorting facility, Tada explains that different markets demand different qualities in their lemons. The Japanese, for example, like their lemons large, even though flavor does not vary depending on size or color.

They are graded purely by appearance. Lemons come in three grades: first choice--or sunkist--which are the premium lemons; choice, which are the second-grade lemons; and products--which may be slightly nicked, scarred or in some other way deformed, and are squeezed to make lemon juice.

The best lemons are an even yellow from tip to tip, and have the stereotypical lemon shape--neither too round, nor too oblong. Getting the lemons to match the consumer's idea of a good lemon can be tricky.

Pickers pluck the fruit from the trees when it reaches a certain size--which varies depending on the season, or when it is a perfect lemon-yellow.

Size is the primary guideline. Whether they are yellow, A-silver and B-silver (still green at the tips) or very green, they have to be picked because otherwise they keep growing until they are as large as grapefruit, Tada says.

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