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Citrus Fest Spotlights Rich Farming Heritage : Santa Paula: The 27th celebration recalls a long agricultural history and stresses need to protect lands.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The giant flatbed truck rambled down Santa Paula’s Main Street on Saturday, toting dozens of waving and laughing youngsters and a small grove of citrus trees with paper cutouts of oranges and lemons.

The truckload of Boys & Girls Club members and their movable forest was among a long line of floats, horses, cowboys, bands and marching groups that formed a parade for Santa Paula’s 27th Annual Citrus Festival.

“It’s a pretty good time,” said 12-year-old Carolina Ramirez of Santa Paula, just after the truck pulled off on a side street.

Carolina, whose father harvests avocados, said she helped club members cut out paper oranges and lemons that hung from the live trees placed in containers on the truck bed. She also helped make the colorful “Citrus on Parade” shirts worn by the spirited group.

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Her father has explained that “crops are very important” to Santa Paula’s and Ventura County’s economy, she said.

And so went the second day of the festival, as children and their parents sampled fruit at farmers’ market stands, hopped on carnival rides and learned about the area’s rich agricultural tradition. The 100-year-old Limoneira Co., one of the area’s largest and oldest citrus growers, set up a display with historical facts about citrus farming.

The festival started Friday afternoon and continues through this evening, with most activities taking place around Veterans Memorial Park.

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The Santa Paula Kiwanis Club sponsors the three-day festival, which serves as the club’s major fund-raiser each year. President Sheryl Trent said the club hopes to raise about $10,000 this year, which the nonprofit club will funnel back into the local community.

The festival celebrates decades of farming citrus--still the largest of the county’s crops--through events such as a citrus recipe cook-off. Many said they simply turned out for a pleasant and fun day with relatives.

“I’m a single parent and this is a special outing,” said Dolly Provencio, 32, of Santa Paula, who brought her three sons. She said she remembers attending the festival with her parents as a child. “I use it as a family outing.”

For 8-year-old Sharon Beasley of Camarillo, her love of horses sent her into a frenzy as men dressed up as charros, or Mexican cowboys, rode by in a wagon pulled by horses.

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“They had sombreros and sequins and cowboy boats,” Sharon said.

“I like the horses ‘cause you can ride them and they have shiny hoofs, like they have nail polish on,” said the auburn-haired girl. She jumped up and down and waved and pointed when horses passed by. “I like the prancing.”

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Sharon’s father, Bill, 47, said the festival is an important reminder that citrus ranches are vital to the economy, add beauty to the area and should be protected from encroaching development.

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“It’s good to showcase it,” he said. “You forget the economy of the area is based on agriculture. Santa Paula Councilwoman Margaret Ely, who rode in the parade, said: “We’re trying to focus attention on agriculture. We only have about 100,000 to 175,000 acres of agricultural land left that we can lose before agriculture is no longer viable in the county.”

Ely said the county has been losing agricultural land to commercial and residential development since World War II. She said that if too much land is lost, it “makes agriculture prohibitively expensive . . . for family farmers” because development tends to raise water rates too high for small farmers.

In 1993, lemons were the county’s top-grossing crop and covered the most acreage, said Earl McPhail, the county’s agricultural commissioner. Oranges brought in the fourth-largest amount of money of any single crop.

All together, the county’s citrus crops--lemons, oranges and small grapefruit--grossed about $220 million last year, he said. The county’s overall crop value was placed at more than $850 million.

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