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Citrus grower with a zest for experimentation

January 16, 2008|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

MEYER LEMONS are so readily available now you can even find them in grocery stores. But back in the day (say, 20 years ago) they were as scarce -- and as sought after -- as Persian mulberries. If you wanted some, you practically had to either have a tree in your backyard or visit Bob Polito at the farmers market.

Polito was one of the adventurous pioneers who, in the 1980s, launched a revolution by helping Southern California cooks discover that there was more to citrus fruit than oranges and grapefruits. Besides Meyer lemons, Polito was one of the first to grow those wonderfully sweet-tart Oroblanco grapefruits, raspberry-tinged blood oranges and candy-flavored Satsuma and Clementine tangerines.

Campanile chef Mark Peel remembers finding the occasional Meyer when he was working at Chez Panisse up in Berkeley and then at early-days Spago, but they were rare. "I don't know where we were getting them, probably somebody's backyard," he says.

"When we opened Campanile and found Polito, that was the first time we could get them on a regular basis. He's still one of the best guys out there."

And Polito is still pioneering unusual varieties at the eight Southland farmers markets he works every week. Here is a sampling of what you could buy at his Santa Monica farmers market stand one recent Wednesday morning: Persian, Eureka and Meyer lemons; Oroblancos; Bearss limes; Algerian Clementines, Satsumas, and another mandarin variety he calls "Perfection." Soon to come are a couple more mandarins and blood oranges.

Oh, yes, there are regular oranges too -- both Valencias and navels.

That's a lot of variety to pack into the limited amount of land Polito farms among the rolling hills of San Diego County. But making a living at the farmers market -- especially in these trying times -- means offering a healthy mix of delicious discoveries as well as those favorites people already know they want.

Rugged landscape

To get to the Polito family farm, you wind up into the hills above the town of Valley Center, roughly halfway between Escondido and Mt. Palomar. The landscape is rugged, especially for farm country -- the aptly named Hellhole Canyon park is nearby.

But despite the seeming harshness and aridity, the orchards pressed up against the foothills have been home for decades to some of Southern California's finest citrus and avocados. Still, today there are probably more new home developments and Indian gaming casinos than orchards -- stark reminders of what awaits farmers who can't pull their weight financially.

Bob's father, also named Bob, a retired doctor, and his wife, Rose, bought the home ranch property in the 1960s and still live in the rambling Mission-style house that anchors it, surrounded by succulents and citrus. Bob and his wife, Mary, run the farm and live just up the hill.

The orchards around the house are mature, the trees 15 to 20 feet high and almost outrageously fecund. They are so loaded down with their bright yellow and deep-orange fruit that they look like overburdened Christmas trees.

The real farming began in 1981 when the younger Polito brought his family south and started working the 70-acre home ranch. At the time, it was planted mostly with oranges, Marsh ruby grapefruits and avocados.

It was not an auspicious assortment. "The first thing I realized was that no one wanted the Marsh ruby grapefruit," he laughs. "They don't get any color unless they get super hot weather. And we couldn't sell them. We were always losing money on them."

Polito is a broad-shouldered, laconic guy who always seems to be wearing a flannel work shirt and baseball cap. He doesn't seem to get excited by much; one acquaintance describes his style as "farmer phlegmatic." That's probably a good thing, given the challenges he's faced.

Among the original orchards, there were also apple trees, planted in a deep hollow where the cold air collects in the winter. California has never been overly lucky with apples, and particularly not in the southern part of the state. Because they were having such a hard time selling their apples, Rose Polito looked into the then-new phenomenon of farmers markets.

"Mom got in touch with [Santa Monica market manager] Laura Avery, and I went down there to sell some apples," Polito says. "I just loaded them up in the back of my Chevy LUV pickup truck and drove to Santa Monica. It was pretty funny."

Though the farmers market wasn't enough to keep the Politos in the apple business, it was the turning point for the rest of the farm.

At the market, Polito got prices that were much better than what he'd been offered at the commercial packing houses. Even better, he learned a new way to farm.

"There was a farmer at the Santa Monica market that I started talking to from a place called Teepee Ranch out by Lake Elsinore, and she had all sorts of different kinds of fruit," Polito says. "It looked a lot more interesting than what I had, so I decided I could do that too."

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