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Pandemic leads to a ‘yo-yo’ year for lemon farmers

Issue Date: October 28, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman
An employee harvests lemons from a Ventura County grove. Marketers say farmers’ returns on lemons will be significantly lower this season. Sales to restaurants and other food-service customers dropped sharply during pandemic-related shutdowns. Though retail sales have increased, that hasn’t made up for the drop in food-service purchases.
Photo/Silas Fallstich
California farmers harvest more than three-quarters of the lemons grown in the United States. When many restaurants closed due to the pandemic, marketers shifted to retail sales.
Photo/Bryanna Fissori

2020 has been a rough year for California lemon growers, due mainly to the pandemic, and it's anyone's guess what the winter will bring.

"This has been the most yo-yo thing I've ever seen in my life," said Glenn Miller, president of the Saticoy Lemon Association in Ventura. "Especially last spring—you didn't know from one day to the next whether you should bring fruit in and harvest it and operate your facilities."

The first signs of trouble came from the export market, according to Alex Teague, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Limoneira in Santa Paula. He said a container shortage, coupled with COVID-19 outbreaks in Asia, ate into the export business in late December and January. Then came March, when the first round of U.S. shelter-in-place orders either closed restaurants or restricted them to takeout and delivery.

"When the restaurants and bars shut down, that put a major hurt particularly on medium to small fruit, which is really a heavy food-service item," Teague said. "Luckily, retail picked up with the COVID, because everybody knows the vitamin C part of things, but that couldn't overcome the loss in the food service and the export."

Miller said March and April were the worst months, due to the timing.

"Here in Ventura County, we were just ramping up to moving into our peak harvest time," Miller said. "The COVID thing just threw that all in a kilter."

In normal times, he said, 45% to 50% of the association's lemons go to food service; now it's 15% to 20%, he said.

"All of a sudden, people were buying more from the stores," Miller said. "That normally requires a different size structure. Usually, the fruit that they require is a little bit larger than the food service. That forced us into picking larger fruit, which meant we had to let it grow on the tree a little bit longer."

After the initial shock, the association started moving toward normal harvesting around April, Miller said; September helped make up some of the early-spring losses, which he attributed to some food service coming back to complement the boost in retail.

Will Pidduck, who grows lemons and avocados in Ventura County, said lemons will keep for weeks or months in cool storage if they're picked when light green.

"The great thing about lemons, you can keep them in storage for quite a while," Pidduck said. "You get them off the tree, you keep them in storage in hopes that the market gets better."

Though the food-service market has recovered somewhat, "it's never come back up to normal," Miller said. "There's just been too many gyrations about opening up, closing, opening up, closing—just uncertain."

Redirecting lemons destined for food service at the last minute was all but impossible, Pidduck said, and when that market shriveled, prices dropped to about $100 a bin—the price he earned 30 years ago.

"That's not good, because everything else costs more," Pidduck said, including labor, pest control, water and land values.

Lemons have many food-service applications, he said.

"You go to a restaurant, and how many times do you get a glass of water and there's a slice of lemon in it?" Pidduck said. "They use it in seafood, iced tea—every glass of iced tea has a slice of lemon."

Teague said many lemons that suddenly lost their food-service markets in March went for processing, which earns a tenth the revenue of fresh-market fruit.

"Juice value will return about 80% of your harvest costs," he said. "It does not even cover 100% of the harvest cost."

Growers' returns will be significantly lower this year, Miller said; some will lose money, "and that's not normally typical for lemons in this area," he added.

Teague said Limoneira shifted its marketing focus in response to the pandemic.

"We turned to the relationships we had in retail," he said. "We did a lot of new packaging, a lot of new bagging, and luckily the demand picked up there in the 30-to-35% range. So that did help out quite a bit."

Retailers proved "very receptive" to the products, Teague said, "and luckily, the consumers were as well."

Lemon growers who suffered losses found partial relief through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, said Casey Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter.

"We're obviously very appreciative of the support from USDA that helped out these growers, because the returns they received this last year were negative," he said. "Every little bit helps."

Creamer said the CFAP aid helped lemon farmers meet their obligations, keep employees and "just stabilize the operations (while) hoping for a better year this upcoming year."

Returning restaurant service to something of what it was before the pandemic is "going to be a significant challenge for quite some time," he said. "Even if we had a vaccine tomorrow, there's been a lot of restaurants that have been shut down across the country permanently."

There's also the question of how comfortable people will be in going out to eat, he said, and how much the pandemic may have changed long-term habits.

Creamer said he foresees a drop in lemon crop volumes this year, noting that overall, "having a little bit lighter crop is probably a good thing, considering the pandemic and the effect from the food-service sector."

For Pidduck, the 2020 lemon harvest season has pretty much ended, and he said he retains optimism for a better season in 2021.

"Seeing restaurants starting to open up here and there gives us hope for this next year's season that the market's stronger and there's a more widely available market for our lemons," he said.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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