Cultivating Change in Santa Paula

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For generations, the Limoneira Co. and this Santa Clara Valley city grew and prospered together, the farm company's powerful owners playing an influential role in shaping the community.

But in recent years the fortunes of Santa Paula and Limoneira--who share common founders--diverged.

The city became Ventura County's poor stepchild, its sagging economy reflected in its timeworn downtown.

The 104-year-old Limoneira Co., in contrast, grew to become the county's largest farming enterprise. And that pace has only intensified in recent months.

The company has just announced its purchase of about 1,500 acres of San Joaquin Valley cropland, underlining its status as a premier grower of lemons and oranges that ships citrus around the would.

But now privately held Limoneira--a 600-employee company that farms nearly 7,000 acres--is pondering a reunification of goals with Santa Paula proper: The company's development arm is working with the city on a plan to build 900 homes, a school and a hotel on 543 acres of mostly Limoneira land in the vast greenbelt that separates Santa Paula and Fillmore.

"Until recently we've kept a low profile--it's just our nature," said Alan Teague, chairman emeritus of the Limoneira board and grandson of C.C. Teague, a former congressman credited with modernizing the state's citrus industry.

"I think you'll see Limoneira be more in the forefront in trying to bring Santa Paula back on its feet," he said. "I think all of us have a sense of obligation to the community. The community has been good to us and our forebears."

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Leading the effort is Pierre Tada, 39, a youthful chief executive officer and president appointed earlier this year after directing the company's finances for a decade.

Tada maintains that Santa Paula must "reposition" itself among Southern California cities.

"The economy of the city of Santa Paula is very, very poor," he said. "It's been years of maintaining policies that are not very favorable to business. It's been years of trying to maintain the status quo as the world has changed."

Not all city officials have welcomed the company's new aggressive posture.

Councilman John Melton is one who worries that any intrusion into the 34,200-acre greenbelt could set an unwelcome precedent.

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"The Santa Clara Valley [has] really been looked to as one of the bastions of long-term farming in the county," said Larry Rose, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Land Trust and Conservancy. "The way Limoneira goes is the way the whole valley will go."

And some students of Santa Paula history say Limoneira has not always led the quaint farm city of 25,000 in the right direction.

A June 1968 article by Michael R. Belknap in the California Historical Society's journal accused Santa Paula's "lemon barons"--and by extension Limoneira--of perpetuating a "semifeudal system" consisting of a low-paid, low-skilled work force that discouraged manufacturers from moving to the city. Belknap contends that the city became overly dependent on the philanthropy of Limoneira's founding families, which built everything from the city's hospital to its library.

At one time those families controlled the city's banks and water. They became mayors and congressmen.

Today about 80% of the company's stock is still held by the descendants of just five families, said board member Robert Sawyer, a distant descendant of Samuel Edwards, whose land and assets were merged in 1985 with Limoneira.

In recent years, the influence of those who run Limoneira has diminished in Santa Paula. Yet echoes of past power remain.

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Both the company and its founding families are still major donors to Santa Paula charities and civic projects, including the city's restored railroad depot, its community center and parks.

The need for continuing growth and change is the operational maxim of Limoneira, a company whose sales exceed $40 million a year and that has more than tripled its planted acreage in the last 12 years.

"For 100 years they've been the industry leader in the county as far as citrus goes," said Rose, who is also sales manager of Saticoy's Brokaw Nursery. "Everybody keeps an eye on Limoneira as far as what they're planting."

As the company's name suggests, Limoneira has long been among the leading lemon producers in a county that is the nation's largest producer of the fruit.

Limoneira accounts for almost 7% of Ventura County's 26,630 acres of lemons.

But Limoneira is more than lemons. It farms 1,137 acres of avocados and is the state's second-largest grower.

Yet, Limoneira's increasing clout means it is regarded with suspicion. The close-knit local agricultural community is rife with rumors that Limoneira's recent purchases show it is anticipating the day the Santa Clara Valley is paved over.

But Tada said the company has no plans to move from its historic 60-acre complex that includes a packinghouse, warehouses, a park, basketball courts and aging buildings converted into offices.

Still, with Limoneira looking to eventually develop farmland on Santa Paula's eastern flank, its long-term intentions are suspect.

Critics question whether it is wise to allow builders to nibble away at the valued open space.

"[Development] will throw a question mark out into the valley of what is the longevity of farming in the area," Rose said.

Contrary to a state study that described its Teague-McKevett parcel as prime farmland, Limoneira officials insist that 83% is either unsuitable for agriculture or has low value because of poor soil and drainage.

"A lot of lands that are being called prime ag lands are just green," Tada said. "Just because you put some land-use designation on a piece of property doesn't mean the business you put on that property is going to survive."

Santa Paula City Councilman Jim Garfield downplays concerns about Limoneira's development intentions. Santa Paula residents simply are not interested in allowing any developer to pave over the valley, he said.

"Some people say 'Oh, they're going to be a development company and develop the valley.' And I don't think that's true."

In any event, officials acknowledge that any development must overcome Santa Paula's image as the poorest Ventura County community.

Sales are slow at Limoneira's initial housing project, Vista Pointe, a 25-acre hillside tract of 28 homes. Only four of eight homes have sold since construction began in November.

Eventually, city and Limoneira officials hope, the small-town charms of Santa Paula will draw people looking to escape urban areas. A new downtown revitalization project is among the steps being taken to revive the town.

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