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Decline Puts the Squeeze on Oranges

Citrus: Pressured by competition and costs, many Ventura County growers are quitting Valencias. But there's a movement afoot to try to rescue the industry.

July 08, 2001|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

First it was the sugar beet, once Ventura County's dominant crop but now little more than a footnote in agricultural lore. Then came walnuts, lima beans and the Moorpark apricot, all agricultural mainstays until markets dried up and those crops withered away.

Now the county's century-old Valencia orange industry is in trouble, reeling from its worst season in decades but banking on a counterattack underway aimed at reviving a crop that has come to symbolize California's golden age of agriculture.

Although still a strong component of Ventura County's farm economy, the orange crop has suffered significant losses in recent years and prompted growers to uproot thousands of trees in favor of lemons, avocados and other produce better able to turn a profit in California's increasingly competitive fruit and vegetable markets.

Values plummeted nearly 80% from 1999 to 2000, while land dedicated to Valencias has dropped by half--to 9,300 acres--during the last 30 years.

But unlike with other crops that have gone under without much of a fight, growers in Ventura County's orange-producing valleys are waging a last-ditch battle to rescue Valencias.

It is a battle taking place on several fronts:

* University of California farm advisors have established an experimental grove in Santa Paula, where a pruning and thinning program is being used in hopes of increasing the size, and thus the value, of Valencias.

* Sunkist Growers, the world's largest fruit and vegetable marketer, embarked this summer on a promotional campaign that includes giving away in bags of oranges everything from rub-on tattoos for children to two-week passes to a Bally's fitness center.

* A task force, made up of county growers and agricultural experts, has been created to look at all segments of the industry, including ways to carve a niche in the market by specifically promoting Ventura County Valencias, much the way Wisconsin promotes cheese or California growers push almonds.

Halfway Through a Crucial Year

For many growers, staggering from the economic losses brought on by rising production costs and increased global competition, this summer marks the midway point of a make-or-break year.

And while it remains uncertain how they will fare, some growers believe it's a battle to save not just oranges, but the county's agricultural industry as a whole.

"Our industry is under assault," said Matthew Freeman, general manager of Camulos Ranch Co. near Piru, one of the county's oldest orange growers and still, with 400 acres of Valencias, one of its largest.

Last year was the worst ever for oranges at the citrus grove founded in the 1800s by the Spanish settlers who first tamed the Santa Clara Valley. Freeman said he spent nearly $250,000 to grow 220 acres of Valencias and got a check from the packinghouse for $1.99.

Freeman said one need only look at Orange County, which has gone from a peak of 65,000 acres of oranges in the 1940s to fewer than 200 today, to understand that a once-vibrant farm industry can grind to a halt.

"If you love seeing these valleys, if you love seeing the citrus and don't want to see it paved over, then you need to start asking for California-produced citrus," he said. "The public needs to understand that once you lose one piece of the puzzle--a Valencia commodity, a lemon commodity--the entire industry becomes fragmented and in danger of falling in on itself."

Whether the death of the Valencia orange industry would spell trouble for agriculture at large is a matter of debate.

Ventura County agriculture has long been a harvest of change, some farmers argue, where old crops die out only to be replaced by those that make more money.

In fact, of the top 10 crops 60 years ago, only lemons and Valencia oranges remain on that list today. Lemons are Ventura County's No. 1 crop while Valencias have slipped to ninth, with a value of $16.1 million.

"It's just the natural evolution of things," said Chris Taylor, senior vice president of farming for Santa Paula-based Limoneira Co., the county's largest farming enterprise.

Taylor said the company began getting out of the Valencia orange business in Ventura County in 1989, right about the time the industry started its economic slump. It had about 1,000 acres of Valencias then. Today it has none.

Still, he serves on the task force searching for answers to problems plaguing the industry. He is the first to admit that he isn't its most optimistic member.

"My answer for what should happen is to decide what size bulldozer to bring in," he said. "I think growers with foresight are going to be planting different crops."

Many orange growers are doing just that, replacing old and tired orchards with lemons and avocados, two crops whose values have skyrocketed over the last 30 years.

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