Ken Kelley with star ruby grapefruit on Flying Dragon rootstock at Bautista… (David Karp )
Reporting from Hemet — At the farthest fringe of the Inland Empire, southeast of the hardscrabble town of Hemet, lies the world center of summer grapefruit, one of the least known and most fascinating of California's agricultural niches. The major commercial grapefruit districts, Florida, Texas and California's Coachella low desert, harvest from November to April, but Hemet's peculiar high desert microclimate — hot enough in the day to color and sweeten the fruit but cool enough at night to delay maturity — provides a rare source of high-quality grapefruit in late spring and summer.
The dean of local grapefruit growers is David G. Kelley, 82, whose grandfather traded real estate along Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica a century ago for a citrus ranch in Corona. By one family account, when the first traffic light came to Corona, this grandfather decided the town was getting too busy and bought property in Hemet, then so remote that there were no paved roads or telephones. In 1935, he established his first grove of Marsh grapefruit, the traditional white-fleshed variety.
In the late 1940s, when David Kelley returned from military service and joined the family business, he started planting pink-fleshed Ruby varieties, developed from natural mutations in Texas and Florida. In the 1980s he began putting in new "super-red" varieties, Star Ruby, Rio Red and Flame.
Today the Kelley family grows 220 acres of citrus, mostly grapefruit, along with some late-season navel orange varieties, all farmed by David Kelley's son, Ken, 52. The flatlands on their properties are a lush sea of grapefruit trees, with the golden and pink fruits mostly hidden in the dense green foliage. To make use of the steep hillsides, Ken planted on a dwarfing rootstock, Flying Dragon trifoliate, which yields trees just 6 feet tall, short enough to harvest by hand.
First to ripen, and at its peak right now, is Star Ruby, the most deeply colored and arguably the best of the reds. Firm, juicy, with rich, fruity flavor and few seeds, it is the standard of quality among red grapefruit; in Texas, where it was introduced, and in Florida too, it is not all that extensively grown, because of problems such as erratic bearing and sensitivity to herbicides, but it flourishes in Hemet.
Next is Rio Red, the leading variety in Texas and the Coachella desert, which in Hemet is at its best in June. Its quality is generally good but lower than that of Star Ruby and Flame. It has a somewhat thicker rind, more pronounced in arid areas like Hemet, and tends to develop a "sheep nose," a pyramidal shape disdained by grapefruit cognoscenti.
Ken and his wife, Susan, are proudest of their Flames, which peak in July, and are close to Star Ruby in appearance and quality, with a remarkably thin rind for California grapefruit.
In August and September they harvest Marsh Ruby, an older, lighter pink variety that takes longer to sweeten and color up. It holds better on the trees. Like most non-organic growers of summer grapefruit, the Kelleys apply 2,4-D, a plant hormone, to keep the fruit from falling off the trees.
Latest of all is the Marsh white, which reaches peak in flavor in September in Hemet. This was long the dominant grapefruit in California, accounting for 90% of the state's crop in 1953, but today very little production remains; Jim Meeks, grapefruit sales manager for Sunkist, estimates that this season the cooperative will ship just 41,000 (40-pound) cartons of white grapefruit, versus 1.8 million of the colored varieties.
The Kelley have just 39 of the original Marsh trees planted in 1935, which are now huge and have thick trunks. But both Ken and Susan, like many grapefruit experts, consider Marsh their favorite for its intense flavor.
"When you let it stay on the tree long enough, and the sugar catches up to the acid, it's like a sweet-and-sour candy," says Susan.
In addition to growing grapefruit, for 25 years Ken and Susan ran a nursery that sold up to 80,000 trees a year and supplied most of the citrus trees in the Hemet Valley. In 2008, however, scientists detected the Asian citrus psyllid, an aphid-like insect, in backyard citrus in Southern California. Because this pest can transmit huanglongbing (citrus greening), a bacterial disease that is deadly to citrus trees, state plant health authorities started planning to require citrus nurseries to enclose their mother trees in insect-proof structures.
To stay in business, the Kelleys ultimately would have needed to enclose their entire citrus nursery production, at a cost of $400,000 an acre; since their customers were reducing orders because of water cutbacks and fear of greening, they decided that shouldering that expense didn't make economic sense for them, and they started shutting down their nursery.