Citrus growers cope with labor, pest concerns
By Steve Adler
Lemon harvest in Ventura County is about two-thirds complete and growers like Josh Pinkerton, above, say they are happy with the size and quality of fruit, which recovered from weather challenges earlier in the season.
One of the biggest challenges for Ventura County lemon growers this harvest season is the shortage of agricultural employees needed to harvest the crop.
Facing unusual difficulty in hiring enough harvest help, lemon growers in Ventura County say they are finding ways to get the job done by sharing resources.
"Like everywhere else in California, we are having a labor shortage. We are getting by, but it is taking us a little longer than normal to harvest," said Gus Gunderson, director of farming for southern operations for Limoneira in Santa Paula.
Ventura County lemon grower Josh Pinkerton said the difficulty in finding enough people for the harvest relates directly to the current situation on the California-Mexico border, where a combination of enforcement by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and drug-related violence on the Mexican side of the border has discouraged people from entering the U.S.
"Our labor contractors are juggling everything and that is creating a stumbling block," he said. "When compared to last summer when my labor contractor may have had 60 to 80 people on his crew, this summer he has about 40.
"We are picking a particular part of the ranch right now, and because of the labor shortage our farm labor contractor had to pull his crew out a few days early to go to another ranch to meet the needs of another farmer. That isn't an optimal situation for us, but due to the labor shortage that is happening all over Ventura County," Pinkerton said.
Another Ventura County grower, David Schwabauer, said he faces a similar situation.
"The big challenge has been the very tight labor situation. The picking crews are smaller than they normally would be at this time of year, and it is taking longer to harvest," he said.
Another area of concern for citrus growers in California is the Asian citrus psyllid and the deadly, bacterial tree disease called huanglongbing, also known as citrus greening disease, that the insect can carry to citrus trees. HLB, which is widespread on the southeastern United States, is responsible for killing 200,000 acres of Florida citrus groves.
The psyllid showed up in a California Department of Food and Agriculture trap in San Diego County in 2008 and has since been found in several Southern California counties. Only one incident of HLB has been detected, in a suburban citrus tree in the Los Angeles suburb of Hacienda Heights, and that tree was removed.
Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual, said HLB is the most serious disease known to citrus because there is no known cure.
"In Florida, they didn't recognize the danger caused by the psyllid until it was widespread and after about five years the disease started showing up. It was like a domino effect," he said. "We learned that lesson and benefited from their problems, and when the psyllid showed up in Tijuana and San Diego in 2008 we immediately began a program of treating wherever it was found.
"We haven't been able to eradicate it in the inner Los Angeles metropolitan area, but we have been able to push it back and keep it from spreading out into the commercial citrus areas. To date, we have no commercial groves that are infested with the Asian citrus psyllid," he said.
Lemon acreage in Ventura County, which is the state's leading county for lemon production, is slowly declining. Pinkerton called concern about HLB a driving force behind the shift from lemons to other crops.
"We are seeing quite a bit of lemons being removed throughout Ventura County. Avocado acreage continues to rise, but then we are also seeing people pulling out lemons and going to row crops such as strawberries, celery, raspberries and so on," he said.
Another citrus crop, tangerines, is gaining in popularity. Ventura County grower Emily Thacher-Ayala, who produces 16 varieties of tangerines for both the wholesale trade and farmers markets, said this year's fruit had "outstanding flavor," but that the crop size was down from average.
"This year was a little bit odd with the tangerines because of the freeze in the Central Valley that caused a shortage. We put our prices really high and kept them high, and we sold out early," she said.
Harvest has wrapped up for mandarins, which are grown primarily in the Central Valley, Blakely said. Clementines, which are harvested from October through Christmas, enjoyed a very good season with excellent quality, ideal size and good flavor, he said, but W. Murcott mandarins did not fare as well.
"Clementines had probably one of their best seasons since that sector has come into existence over the last eight to 10 years. The Murcotts on the other hand were caught by that cold weather in December-January and they struggled," Blakely said.
Harvest of California's biggest citrus crop—navel oranges—is just ending. Overall, this year's crop will be smaller than last year, but about the same amount of fruit was shipped because of better utilization, Blakely said.
California supplies up to 85 percent of the fresh citrus consumed in the United States, and exports, depending on crop size, anywhere from 25 percent to 30 percent. Major export markets include Korea, Southeast Asia, China and Japan.
Navel acreage has remained fairly steady with slight increases in recent years. Acreage of valencia oranges, though, has declined the last 10 years. Valencias compete with other summer tree fruit and with grapes—as well as with navel oranges coming into the United States from Southern Hemisphere countries such as Chile, South Africa and Australia.
"The valencia acreage has been replaced in large part by the mandarins, which have had phenomenal growth over the past 12 to 15 years and have now pretty much surpassed valencias as the No. 2 variety in terms of acreage," Blakely said.
(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.