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Orange County's Identity Crisis

Agriculture: For the first time, the lemon crop is outpacing the region's namesake fruit.

July 09, 1998|SHELBY GRAD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE COUNTY — Just call it Lemon County.

Production of the once-mighty orange, Orange County's top citrus crop for a century, declined by 70% last year and was finally surpassed by lemons.

"It really puts in perspective how few oranges groves we have left," said Gordon McClelland, who worked in local packinghouses as a teenager and later wrote a book about citrus box labels. "It makes you wonder what will happen next year."

According to new statistics from the Orange County Agriculture Commission, lemon groves stood on 592 acres last year and produced 6,494 tons of fruit, a slight increase over the year before. Meanwhile, orange production continued its 50-year collapse, leaving just 208 acres in production, compared with 669 the year before, yielding just 2,492 tons of fruit.

The turnabout marks another grim milestone for orange farmers and raises questions about how much longer the fruit will be grown in the county.

But it also says something about the resilience of the lemon, which, although it has long been overshadowed by its sweeter cousin, has remained a relatively stable crop for 30 years.

"Farmers today are barely recovering the costs on oranges, and the trees are getting old and in some cases are producing not the best fruit," said Paul Engler, president of the California Citrus Quality Council. "But they are still making a profit on lemons."

Some growers actually have converted their groves by grafting lemon shoots to the stumps of orange trees.

Agriculture experts say lemon farmers are surviving because a crate of lemons sells for double the price of oranges, which are in oversupply worldwide.

Another advantage is that lemons can be stored for several months after picking, while oranges must be sold immediately, Engler said.

For the last 100 years, the lemon has been second banana to the Valencia orange, which in the 1940s covered 65,000 acres from La Habra to San Juan Capistrano. Oranges, local historian Esther Cramer said, simply were more popular.

"It was like the old expression: One lemon goes a long way," she said.

During the first half of the century, lemon groves produced only a fraction of the county's citrus crops. Lemon trees were considered slightly more sensitive to heat than orange trees, so they tended to be planted in the hills, Cramer said. Lemon Heights, for example, got its name from the miles of groves once planted there.

"This area was always considered orange country because of the warm weather," said Ed Pankey of Tustin, who owned citrus orchards in Orange County through the 1960s and still runs farms elsewhere in the state. "Ventura County was considered lemon country . . . because they had the cooler breezes" from the ocean.

Picking lemons also was once considered especially labor-intensive because ripeness was determined by the size of the fruit. Growers picked only lemons that didn't fit through a metal measuring ring, Cramer said. Orange growers could tell by the color and time of the season when their crops were ripe.

The rapid development of the 1950s, '60s and '70s obliterated much of the farmland in Orange County, and lemon and orange groves were hard hit. But while orange production continued to plummet in the 1980s and '90s, lemon production was relatively steady. Many of the remaining lemon groves are in more remote areas, farther from the paths of development.

Another cause of the orange's decline was competition from Florida and elsewhere, as many of Orange County's trees were aging and no longer producing high-quality fruit.

"I think a lot of growers determined that they've gotten the best years they can out of those trees," said John Ellis, the county's deputy agriculture commissioner.

Increasingly, orange growers replaced their orchards with avocado and strawberry crops, both more common now than citrus.

Some wonder when citrus groves will disappear entirely from Orange County.

McClelland said he was recently driving on the freeway and noticed some groves.

"I thought to myself, how long will they last?"

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Citrus Switch

The number of acres used for both lemons and oranges has fallen over the last 50 years as Orange County has changed from an agricultural area to a suburb. But while orange groves continue to disappear, lemon farms are stabilizing. This year lemons surpassed oranges as the county's top citrus crop. Acres planted:

Lemons

'40: 7,473

'97: 592

****

Oranges

'40: 65,000

'97: 208

Source: Orange County Agricultural Commissioner

Researched by SHELBY GRAD / Los Angeles Times

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