MESA, Ariz. — Art Freeman knows his years are numbered as a citrus grower.
Freeman owns and tends a 300-acre spread of lush green groves some 20 miles east of downtown Phoenix, far removed from the urban sprawl. But that may not be the case much longer.
The development that has swallowed up so much of the surrounding desert is steadily advancing on the farm he established 30 years ago.
"Farming is done here, but we have no place to go," he lamented. "We don't fit in anymore."
Citrus for much of the 20th century was a cornerstone of the state's so-called "Five C's" economy, along with cattle, climate, copper and cotton. Yuma and the Phoenix-area communities of Gilbert, Mesa and Queen Creek are primary growing areas.
Some groves in south Phoenix are also still in use. But on the brink of a new millennium, the industry is shrinking, leaving growers, shippers, scientists and agricultural officials to ponder the fate of Arizona citrus farming.
So far, Freeman and other growers have managed to survive in an industry under constant attack from foreign competition, government regulations, Mother Nature and, of course, subdivisions. They're not optimistic about the future.
"I don't have a lot of personal hope in the next 40 or 50 years," said James Truman, farm manager of the University of Arizona's Citrus Agricultural Center in Waddell.
"If the South American countries come on line, there will be even more fierce competition," said Glen Curtis, a Yuma citrus grower in business for more than 50 years.
The statistics are telling: From 1994 until 1997, the value of Arizona's citrus crop--grapefruits, lemons, oranges and tangerines--declined from about $79 million to $46 million. Also in that time, the number of acres harvested fell from 37,600 to 33,100, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
Within Arizona's $6.3-billion agriculture industry, citrus doesn't even rank among the state's top 10 cash crops. Cotton is king in Arizona, and hay, wheat, lettuce, cantaloupes and broccoli are more valued than citrus.
"The reason the citrus industry is smaller now is because of urban growth," said Andy Kurtz, executive director of the Arizona Farm Bureau. "Many new homes are built in former citrus orchards."
In the east Mesa area, the conversion of orchards into subdivisions is evident to anyone driving by. Among the miles and miles of dark green groves sit sections of concrete sewer mains awaiting burial. Some homes are surrounded by citrus trees that have been left unmolested.
"You can't blame these guys for selling out. Money is slim these days," said Terry Tipton, whose uncle's 80-acre Mesa citrus orchard will soon have a rendezvous with the bulldozer. "The way of life for the farmer is disappearing. The industry seems shot."
This year, however, the citrus industry contraction was reversed temporarily thanks to a freeze that nearly wiped out California's citrus crop. The freeze helped drive up prices and increased demand for Arizona's harvest.
Climate, Cheap Land Now Fruit's Undoing
Citrus is not native to Arizona, nor to the United States. Lemons and oranges spread from the Middle East to China, India, Algeria and Spain. Columbus brought along oranges to the New World. Thanks to the Spanish conquistadors, the fruits were imported into Mexico and eventually spread north into Southern California.
Commercial orange orchards began appearing in the Los Angeles area in the mid-1880s. The first commercial citrus groves--grapefruits and oranges--were planted in the Phoenix and Yuma areas beginning around World War I.
Arizona growers started to cultivate the popular navel and valencia oranges in the mid-1930s. Lemons, currently the state's biggest and most lucrative crop, came on board in the mid-1950s; tangerines, the state's second most valued citrus, went into mass production in the mid-1960s.
Arizona's year-round frost-free climate and soil conditions proved to be the right mix for citrus. Citrus likes so-called caliche soil, which is found throughout the world's dry regions.
Growing citrus is unlike growing grains or vegetables. Once the trees are planted and bearing fruit, a grower only needs to worry about irrigation, pests and harvest time.
"You don't have to go through the tremendous investment and work," Freeman said. "Your capital investment is so much less than cotton or wheat."
It's ironic, growers say, that the two things that made Arizona so attractive for citrus growing--a good climate and lots of cheap land--are helping to undo the industry. Those factors, among others, are luring record numbers of people to Arizona who need new homes and shopping centers.
"Development, that's what it gets down to," said Jim Mast, a small Mesa grower and manager of Mesa Citrus Growers. "What can you do about it?"
State agriculture officials say they are trying to address the industry's current decline. There's talk about finding lands for new orchards and new investors to revive discarded fields.
State and industry officials also are looking to the large Asian market to help give the growers a boost, said Lloyd Brown, a spokesman for the state agriculture department. "The market conditions are changing such that Arizona is becoming more attractive."