By Mike McCoy
Executive Director, Kern County Museum
Digging through the Kern County Museum’s Library, one of my favorite old books is A History of Kern County California by Wallace Morgan and published in 1914. One chapter on agriculture was very much a crystal ball on the future of citrus in Kern. On page 24 Morgan notes “But while the county’s orange and lemon production is yet in the future, as far as any great commercial results are concerned, the capacity of the soil, the abundance of the water, and the perfect adaptability of the climate have demonstrated without all doubt.” Morgan goes on to praise the oranges grown at Tejon Ranch and noted that the small community of Edison was beginning to put in orange orchards.
Morgan would have been very pleased indeed, to come back to Kern and Tulare counties today where nearly 1/3 of the state’s 3-billion-dollar citrus crop is raised (California Citrus Research Board 2017). The huge California citrus industry had its first starts with the Spanish missions but commercially with a frontiersman named Wolfskill who planted a grove in what is now downtown Los Angeles in the 1840s. Wolfskill was soon selling oranges and lemons to miners and developed a large regional market. California’s national markets would create a second gold rush with the development of the navel orange in 1870. Originally from Brazil, the navel was sweet, seedless and traveled well. It also tolerated California’s warm climate as a winter crop. Because it was seedless and required grafting, the navel orange was uniform in color, shape and quality, helping marketing efforts. One of these original Washington Navel trees is still alive in Riverside and producing fruit over 140 years later.
The 1880s soon were a boomtime for oranges in California thanks to the navel variety. The hub of the business was originally Riverside County where the first three navel orange trees had been grafted. Soon growers looked to other locations in Southern California including the San Joaquin Valley. There was also a growing national market for the oranges, but early growers were stymied by excessive duties and fees fixed by rail interests. Banding together as a collective in 1893 as the Southern California Fruit Exchange, farmers were able to negotiate fair prices for shipping. This group later became Sunkist Growers.
Sunkist Growers embraced innovation by utilizing advertisement. The navel orange soon became the symbol of California touted as “The Land of Sunshine.” The multi-generational Porter Ranch in Kern County understood the value of marketing. Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, the Porter Family hired a private rail car to bring potential investors and farmers out to Kern County to see the growing orange crops. Grandson Dick Porter noted that these early train cars put our county and citrus orchards on the map. As urbanization began in coastal areas and huge swaths of Southern California began building houses, the industry continued to move North to the San Joaquin Valley into the 20th century.
Looking forward, a report from the University of California Riverside says the greater value of the citrus crop in California considering wages, fuel, supplies and warehousing is over 7 billion dollars (Bruce Babcock, California Citrus Board Report, University of California Riverside, 2017). The report notes that it is the sheer volume of California’s agriculture industry and their products that have such a strong economic impact. Over one million jobs in California are agriculture related or 6% of the total workforce. Although citrus is only 2% of the total crop acreage in California, oranges, mandarins, grapefruit and lemons provide nearly 7% of the financial value with its higher end crops. Although Florida still is the national leader in orange production, its Valencia variety fruit is mostly used for juice production compared to the higher value California navel oranges.
The California citrus industry is stable at present, but farmers are constantly battling water rights, off-again on-again drought, increases in shipping and labor costs, and foreign insect pests. The very fact that so many of the citrus farms are still family held, and multi-generational, bodes well for the future and for this valuable commodity that is the symbol for our state.