Something new is sprouting at Limoneira Co.
After more than a century of farming the fertile Santa Clara Valley, growing over the years to become Ventura County's largest agricultural enterprise, the Santa Paula company is set to launch its first retail venture.
The grower plans in February to open Limoneira Mercantile, a six-store retail and food outlet with an open-air farmers market and Limoneira-brand coffee company in east Santa Paula. The farming company has other commercial ambitions, including creation of a master-planned community, also on the city's east side.
Company officials say the shift in no way signals an end to Limoneira's farming empire. In fact, Limoneira continues to expand those operations, farming more than 7,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley and in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Rather, officials say the ventures are meant to stabilize earnings long subject to the ups and downs of the farm economy. And they are intended to sink even deeper roots into this largely blue-collar town, which helped Limoneira build its fortune and is scrambling now to restore its own economic vitality.
"It's really about making an investment in the community of Santa Paula at a time when we think Santa Paula is open for business and ripe for opportunity," said Harold Edwards, Limoneira's president and chief executive.
"We are diversifying the company, but not at the expense of our farming operations," Edwards added. "This is very consistent with our legacy and the history of our company."
The venture represents the latest chapter for the 111-year-old farming company, whose founding families were a major force in the growth and development of California's citrus industry.
From its first plantings on 413 acres in 1893, the privately held company has become one of the nation's largest growers of lemons and avocados. Today, it has 250 workers and gross sales in excess of $40 million a year.
The company recently tapped longtime ranching families for key positions, including cousins Harold and Scott Edwards, descendants of a pioneer farming family in Santa Paula. At 39, Harold Edwards oversees the entire operation while Scott Edwards, 41, will serve as general manager for the Mercantile.
Limoneira also recently named Alex Teague, 40, vice president of agricultural operations. Teague is the great-grandson of the company's first general manager, C.C. Teague, and the son of current board Chairman Alan Teague.
The elder Teague said company leaders were as pleased with the new blood as they were with the evolving business plan.
"Interestingly enough, the founders of the Limoneira Co., the people who were the founders of Santa Paula, were not necessarily farmers. They were businesspeople," Alan Teague said. "We don't want to create the wrong impression. Our first commitment is still to agriculture. But we see an opportunity to help Santa Paula get healthy economically while providing a good investment for ourselves."
It's not just about Limoneira's new Mercantile project.
The company is spearheading efforts to craft a master plan for about 600 acres just east of Santa Paula, a large swath of agricultural land that some see as a key to jump-starting the city's economic engine.
Company officials are working with city leaders and residents to explore a range of development options for the property, including houses, parks and a hospital. Under an agreement between the city and the grower, officials also are looking at establishing a satellite campus of Ventura College on the property.
"We're still in the process of discussing with the public the right things to do out there," Harold Edwards said.
Santa Paula officials say talks with the community are key to winning approval for whatever projects are proposed, because the land is shielded by the city's open space preservation law and can't be developed with homes and businesses without a public vote.
But in a cash-starved city, passed over by the region's retail boom and looking now for an economic jolt, city leaders say they are glad to have Limoneira on board.
"They could choose to diversify and take their resources anywhere in the state, but they've chosen to make an investment in Santa Paula," City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said. "They see the community going in a positive direction, and they want to be part of it."
The first step comes Feb. 5 when the company celebrates the grand opening of the Mercantile, on California 126 at the eastern gateway to Santa Paula.
In the shadow of an old-fashioned water tower, the complex will include a 3,200-square-foot farmers market that will largely be supplied by Limoneira and other local growers. Limoneira also plans to launch its own coffee company and will create the first-ever Bob's Big Boy Original Express, the first of six Big Boy restaurants it plans to open over the next six years across Southern California.
Other businesses are a carwash, convenience store and a Union 76 gas station, a nod to Santa Paula's oil history. The city was the original home of the Union Oil Co. and is the site of the California Oil Museum.
"The Limoneira Mercantile is a combination of Ventura County history and modern-day progress," Scott Edwards said. "Those who visit will be able to enjoy both in one setting."