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Lemon farmers hopeful for rebound despite drought

Issue Date: August 4, 2021
By Kevin Hecteman
Lemons are harvested in a Ventura County orchard in this file photo. Farmers say the return of food service has increased demand for the crop, but lack of rain has resulted in smaller fruit.

Lemons are emerging from a devastating 2020 to find a world of contradictions.

The return of food service, decimated last year by shelter-in-place orders stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, is giving lemon farmers and packing houses cause for optimism. But the shortage of water in a state suffering from extreme drought is resulting in smaller lemons, and coastal Santa Ana winds have led to cosmetic issues.

"Our season this year is certainly better than last year, because some things are starting to come back online—food service and restaurants," said Glenn Miller, president of the Saticoy Lemon Association in Ventura. "We're seeing some improvement over last year, probably comparable to a couple of years ago—which were not the best years we ever had, but not too bad."

He estimated food service demand at about 85% to 90% of normal, compared to last year's range of 30% to 35% of normal.

In addition, he added, competition from imports—especially from Argentina—is depressing prices.

Alex Teague, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Limoneira in Santa Paula, described the beginning of the year as "very depressed, not necessarily from production, but from the market standpoint."

"However, as we got to March and everything started opening, the food service business ricocheted back much quicker than anticipated, which is a nice change after having almost two years of not such good news," Teague said. "As that came back, the business picked up quite a bit, luckily on our medium and small fruit, which was a godsend."

In the absence of rain, many farmers turn to irrigation, but that only goes so far.

"Because of the lack of rain, our most recent pick was probably 10 or 15 truckloads short of what we thought it should be," said Russell Doty, who grows lemons and avocados with his family in Goleta, west of Santa Barbara. "You can irrigate all you want, but the actual rainstorms, and getting that into the soil, is going to get your lemons to grow much more than just irrigation." Rainfall in his area was down about 8 to 10 inches from average.

"Even though we had a lot of fruit on the tree, the size wasn't there," Doty said.

He'll normally have a winter pick in February, a second pick in May and June, and one more in September and October.

"We didn't get a lot of storms later in the year that would have blown up that second pick for us," Doty said.

Blake Mauritson, who grows lemons near Lemon Cove in Tulare County, said he's been trying to play catch-up since January on water.

"It has been a very warm spring and summer thus far, which increased demands for water that is stretched thin as it is," Mauritson said.

Mauritson compared the effects of rain vs. irrigation to a sponge.

"If you just filled up a part of a sponge, that water doesn't last as long, but if you fill up the whole sponge, the water travels and it sinks deeper, and it moves laterally more," Mauritson said.

With rainfall, "you get 100% of the ground wet," he added. "When you're irrigating, you're just targeting the root zone"—in which case a farmer might get water to 25% of the soil.

"Any time you can reach...those root zones and get those roots to reach out further, you're just creating more possibility for water uptake in the tree," Mauritson said.

Without the rain, lemon growers say, the fruit won't grow as big.

"Generally speaking, when you have to try to replace Mother Nature, you're going to lose a size to a size and a half," Teague said. "That's certainly what's occurring now."

Teague considers size 140 to be the peak of the bell curve, noting that sizes this year are trending smaller, toward 165 and 200. The numbers refer to the amount of lemons needed to fill a standard carton.

Some growers have had to resort to deficit irrigation, in which the object is simply to keep the tree alive through the summer. Mauritson said he's seen some of this in his neighborhood, noting that preparation for this goes well beyond pruning the tree.

"A standard prune is, you take some suckers off, you might take some old wood off—that kind of thing," Mauritson said. In this case, "they'll actually take some limbs off and reduce the tree mass by about half."

If water materializes the next year, the farmer can start regrowing the tree. Meanwhile, Mauritson said, "they're not going to get any crop off their trees this year, and they most likely will not have a very good crop next year."

Resorting to deficit irrigation is "a very, very difficult choice" for farmers to make, Teague said.

"If you look at the capital input to a permanent crop, that just hurts when you either have to pull it or deficit-irrigate it, or just not count on anything from it," Teague said. "That's a lot of fixed capital that you put in there that's flushing down the toilet, so to speak."

The main thing farmers can do is "be on top of this water game"—knowing where to take advantage of surface water deliveries or recharge—and that will depend on location and water rights, said Casey Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter. Farmers on the east side of the Central Valley, for example, might have good surface water rights but little to no access to groundwater, he said.

"It's good in wet years, but in dry years, that can be extremely challenging," Creamer said. "That's a different decision than somebody who's completely reliant on groundwater pumping." That farmer, he added, has to deal with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the 2014 law that seeks to regulate groundwater pumping.

One market that bloomed during the pandemic—retail—will still be "very important," Creamer said.

"I think habits have definitely changed with COVID," Creamer said. "I don't see a major drop-off on the retail side of things. More people are cooking at home, and so even as things open up, retail is still going to be a very important part of our business."

Doty's biggest fear, he said, is that the coronavirus' Delta variant could prompt another round of restaurant and bar shutdowns.

"You see lemons in cocktails and water," Doty said, adding that if "they start shutting down restaurants again, that'll hurt big time."

Miller said prices have improved over 2020, by about 25% to 30% per bin.

"Having said that, last year was for many growers a losing proposition," Miller said. "Even though it's improved, they're getting up to where they should be able to cover their cultural costs and maybe make a little bit of money."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

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




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