Decline Puts the Squeeze on Oranges

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First it was the sugar beet, once Ventura County's dominant crop but now little more than a footnote in agricultural lore. Then came walnuts, lima beans and the Moorpark apricot, all agricultural mainstays until markets dried up and those crops withered away.

Now the county's century-old Valencia orange industry is in trouble, reeling from its worst season in decades but banking on a counterattack underway aimed at reviving a crop that has come to symbolize California's golden age of agriculture.

Although still a strong component of Ventura County's farm economy, the orange crop has suffered significant losses in recent years and prompted growers to uproot thousands of trees in favor of lemons, avocados and other produce better able to turn a profit in California's increasingly competitive fruit and vegetable markets.

Values plummeted nearly 80% from 1999 to 2000, while land dedicated to Valencias has dropped by half--to 9,300 acres--during the last 30 years.

But unlike with other crops that have gone under without much of a fight, growers in Ventura County's orange-producing valleys are waging a last-ditch battle to rescue Valencias.

It is a battle taking place on several fronts:

* University of California farm advisors have established an experimental grove in Santa Paula, where a pruning and thinning program is being used in hopes of increasing the size, and thus the value, of Valencias.

* Sunkist Growers, the world's largest fruit and vegetable marketer, embarked this summer on a promotional campaign that includes giving away in bags of oranges everything from rub-on tattoos for children to two-week passes to a Bally's fitness center.

* A task force, made up of county growers and agricultural experts, has been created to look at all segments of the industry, including ways to carve a niche in the market by specifically promoting Ventura County Valencias, much the way Wisconsin promotes cheese or California growers push almonds.

Halfway Through a Crucial Year

For many growers, staggering from the economic losses brought on by rising production costs and increased global competition, this summer marks the midway point of a make-or-break year.

And while it remains uncertain how they will fare, some growers believe it's a battle to save not just oranges, but the county's agricultural industry as a whole.

"Our industry is under assault," said Matthew Freeman, general manager of Camulos Ranch Co. near Piru, one of the county's oldest orange growers and still, with 400 acres of Valencias, one of its largest.

Last year was the worst ever for oranges at the citrus grove founded in the 1800s by the Spanish settlers who first tamed the Santa Clara Valley. Freeman said he spent nearly $250,000 to grow 220 acres of Valencias and got a check from the packinghouse for $1.99.

Freeman said one need only look at Orange County, which has gone from a peak of 65,000 acres of oranges in the 1940s to fewer than 200 today, to understand that a once-vibrant farm industry can grind to a halt.

"If you love seeing these valleys, if you love seeing the citrus and don't want to see it paved over, then you need to start asking for California-produced citrus," he said. "The public needs to understand that once you lose one piece of the puzzle--a Valencia commodity, a lemon commodity--the entire industry becomes fragmented and in danger of falling in on itself."

Whether the death of the Valencia orange industry would spell trouble for agriculture at large is a matter of debate.

Ventura County agriculture has long been a harvest of change, some farmers argue, where old crops die out only to be replaced by those that make more money.

In fact, of the top 10 crops 60 years ago, only lemons and Valencia oranges remain on that list today. Lemons are Ventura County's No. 1 crop while Valencias have slipped to ninth, with a value of $16.1 million.

"It's just the natural evolution of things," said Chris Taylor, senior vice president of farming for Santa Paula-based Limoneira Co., the county's largest farming enterprise.

Taylor said the company began getting out of the Valencia orange business in Ventura County in 1989, right about the time the industry started its economic slump. It had about 1,000 acres of Valencias then. Today it has none.

Still, he serves on the task force searching for answers to problems plaguing the industry. He is the first to admit that he isn't its most optimistic member.

"My answer for what should happen is to decide what size bulldozer to bring in," he said. "I think growers with foresight are going to be planting different crops."

Many orange growers are doing just that, replacing old and tired orchards with lemons and avocados, two crops whose values have skyrocketed over the last 30 years.

Taylor and others acknowledge that such maneuvering is easier said than done. It costs about $3,000 an acre to rip out a block of orange trees, not to mention the cost of planting a new crop. Then some crops take five years to reach maturity and start producing marketable fruit.

Plus, there is no guarantee that the new crop will be in better economic shape than Valencias, especially given the mounting global competition.

That is what has prompted many orange growers to say it might be better to try to pluck a crop from the edge of economic disaster than to move to another and face the same uncertainties.

"Today it's oranges, tomorrow it could be lemons and the day after that avocados," said Larry Yee, head of the UC Extension office in Ventura. "From a research and education standpoint, we are trying to do everything we can to ensure that Ventura County growers are producing the highest-quality fruit and that they are getting the largest return possible per acre."

Through a grant from the Hansen Trust, UC farm advisors are in the third year of a study aimed at improving the size and appearance of Valencia oranges.

On an experimental block of oranges near Santa Paula, workers have been thinning fruit and pruning trees in an effort to spur them to deliver bigger oranges. That grove will produce its first measurable pick at the end of this month.

The farm advisors also have assembled a Valencia Orange Task Force, which includes a UC Davis economist who will try to determine whether the growing methods in place at the Santa Paula farm can be cost-effectively applied on a larger scale.

The economist also will take a broad look at the worldwide orange market and try to determine at what point, as Ventura County loses orange acreage, it no longer makes economic sense to continue farming Valencias.

Nick Sakovich, UC's citrus farm advisor in Ventura County and chairman of the task force, said the group will focus its attention in coming months on marketing.

In Sonoma County, farmers were able to carve a niche market for the cheese and apples that come out of that area by launching a statewide promotional campaign, he said.

Sakovich and others caution that after all their work and study, it could turn out that little can be done to make the Valencia industry viable again. If that is the case, he said, the task force hopes to provide Valencia growers with enough information to help them choose what to farm next.

Cheaper Supply Cut Into Demand

"It doesn't mean Valencias will be wiped out. There's always going to be some acreage, and some growers should be able to make some money some years," Sakovich said. "It just means it's not going to be the booming industry with all the acreage we used to have."

Of all the reasons for the current state of Ventura County Valencias, the one that growers cite most often is the basic rule of supply and demand.

Over the last 10 years, growers in South America, Australia and Africa have stepped up orange production. But they have done so at a fraction of the cost for labor and utilities, allowing them to sell their fruit worldwide for less money and still make a larger profit than domestic growers.

Valencias also have been pounded by increased competition from other offshore fruit and citrus varieties shipped to the United States during the summer, when the oranges have traditionally been at the height of their season.

Add to that the fact that many of the county's orchards were planted decades ago, producing fruit still of good quality but not as large as that produced elsewhere.

Ventura County is the fourth largest Valencia orange producer in the state, behind three counties in the San Joaquin Valley where groves are generally younger and produce the bigger oranges demanded by today's consumer.

Steve Smith, who has grown Valencias along Mud Creek in Santa Paula Canyon for nearly 20 years, traces the industry's downturn to a 1990 freeze that badly damaged California fruit and opened the door to foreign growers.

He said he would put the taste of his oranges up against any in the world. Unfortunately, shoppers most often are only looking at size and appearance and distributors and grocery stores cater to the consumer, he said.

"The cold, hard fact is that Valencias are out of style; no one is making any money on them," said Smith, walking through an orange grove being transformed into an avocado orchard. "It's kind of hard to take out a block of Valencias you've been friends with for 20 years, but you're forced to."

That isn't to say he has given up. While he has diversified his crop in recent years, growing everything from apples to tangerines, about a third of his 280 acres is still dedicated to Valencias.

At Sunkist Growers, the new president, Jeff Gargiulo, said the cooperative is ready to do its part.

The Van Nuys-based marketer has taken plenty of heat from Ventura County growers who say they have taken a back seat to larger growers in other parts of the state. But Gargiulo said Sunkist is doing everything it can to keep Valencia growers in Ventura County and elsewhere competitive.

"I don't think this is the end of the Valencia industry by any means," he said. "Acreage may not be at an all-time high, but I think we can find new ways to market Valencias and that there will be some segment of the crop that will be viable."

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Plummeting Produce

Ventura County's Valencia orange industry has been locked in a decades-long tailspin, battered by increased foreign competition and rising production costs.

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VALUE (In millions of dollars): 16.1

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ACREAGE (In thousands): 9,360

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Source: Ventura County Agriculture Commissioner's Office

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