Squeezed by Drought & Development, Citrus Shrinks in Arizona Economy

WADDELL, Ariz. – On a brisk March morning, the engine of Selwyn Justice’s truck roared to life as he turned out of his driveway onto Peoria Avenue in Waddell, heading toward Surprise.

On a dirt road 15 minutes later, a cloud of dust was billowing behind him as a citrus orchard came into view. It was about 60 degrees and the morning sun drenched the trees as Justice, 30, a fourth-generation Arizona farmer, paused at the entrance of the orchard.

“We’re a vestige of the past here,” he said, digging the toe of his boot into the dirt. “Maricopa County’s presence in the citrus market is declining.”

Selwyn Justice, a fourth-generation farmer in the West Valley, says he sees a future for citrus farming in the state despite development and other challenges. (Photo by Sarabeth Henne/Cronkite News)

A lot has changed since his family opened its ranch in 1928.

Between urban development, drought and disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the number of citrus farms in Arizona has declined by about 40 percent just since 2012 – only 317 farms remained as of a USDA report in 2017.

Once considered foundational to the Arizona economy as one of the “Five Cs” – citrus, cattle, copper, cotton and climate (for the state’s tourism industry) – citrus now accounts for far less than 1 percent of the state’s $23 billion agricultural economy. In 2010, the last packing facility in Mesa, Sunkist, closed due to low levels of production.

The reduction, according to Justice, is the result of changing water costs and availability for water-intensive crops like citrus and cotton, of climate change and of the development of hundreds of citrus farms into urban sprawl.

The USDA said national citrus production declined by about 50 percent between the 2007-2008 and the 2017-2018 seasons. About 6 million tons of citrus were produced in the United States in the latter period: Florida accounted for 36 percent, California 59 percent, and Texas and Arizona made up the final 5 percent.

Even though bees are not needed for some citrus, Selwyn Justice welcomes any help he can get from local hives. (Photo by Sarabeth Henne/Cronkite News)

As he looked at his orchards, Justice was joined around midmorning by a few thousand free citrus workers: the honeybees, who sleep in late. Citrus is generally self-pollinating, so the bees are welcome as helpers, but, for the most part, the trees do more for the bees than the bees do for the trees. In a marginal economic situation, however, the extra help is welcomed by growers. Besides, Justice says, “there are certain varieties that produce better with cross pollination” from bees.

Glenn Wright, a citrus expert at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, agrees.

“Most citrus varieties don’t need bees – they are self-pollinating, a phenomenon known as parthenocarpy,” Wright said.

Parthenocarpy, the development and growth of fruit without prior fertilization, is common in citrus produce, but that doesn’t mean pollination is a lost cause. Pollination can still be important for some varieties, including mandarin oranges.

Cahit Ozturk is a research technologist at Arizona State University’s Honey Bee Research Lab in Mesa. He says that having a few honeybee colonies near citrus orchards can contribute to crop quality and to the quantity of fruit.

“If the plant, either fruit or vegetable, has pollen or nectar, it means they need pollinators for better production,” Ozturk said in an email.

And even for the trees that do fine on their own, Justice is happy for the bees.

Justice Brothers grows dozens of varieties of citrus, from oranges to kumquats to grapefruit. (Photo by Sarabeth Henne/Cronkite News)

“They get to cruise around and collect pollen and have a good time out here, especially in the winter months,” Justice said. “It’s kind of a layover.”

On weekend mornings, Justice is awake by 6 a.m. and is at the orchard by 7:30. On a good day, he leaves by 4 p.m. The honeybees, in dozens of white box hives in a shaded clearing, take off work about the same time.

While the future may seem bleak, Justice sees a future for Arizona citrus. For one thing, people like it. Also, the growing popularity of “pick-your-own produce” farms lets some farmers go directly for retail dollars.

Justice, in fact, also operates Justice Brothers U-Pick, the longest continuously operated citrus orchard in the state, but has been in the pick-your-own business on a former University of Arizona research grove for two years. Justice acquired the land in 2016 and just finished the second year of sales at the U-Pick.

The ranch grows dozens of varieties of citrus, from oranges and grapefruit to pomelos and kumquats. Dozens of customers show up at the orchard each weekend to pick their own fruit.

“(It’s) about as personal as people get through picking the fruit,” Justice says.

And each morning of the season, which runs roughly from December to April in Arizona, he walks down the uniform citrus rows, picking grapefruits, oranges and lemons, then swings a full bag over his shoulder like Santa Claus.

“The nice thing about farming is you get to see the literal fruits of your labor,” he says. “I can come out and look at the orchard and say, ‘Yeah, I did a good job this year.'”

Editors note: Correction – May 27, 2019.
This May 22 Cronkite News story has been corrected after it misstated the history of Justice Brothers U-Pick. The family runs the longest continuously operated citrus orchard in the state, but has been in the pick-your-own business on a former University of Arizona research grove for two years.

Drought, heat and urbanization put the squeeze on lemons in Arizona and California

PHOENIX – Citrus production, one of Arizona’s founding “Five Cs,” predates statehood. But today, the industry is stuck – and for lemons, the market no longer can grow, thanks to drought and urbanization.

Harold Payne is manager of the 2,000-acre Fort McDowell Tribal Farm, which grows lemon trees on just one-tenth of that land, even though prices have been steadily rising.

“So lemons, they are actually the most profitable because a lemon tree will produce three times as much fruit as a navel (orange) tree,” Payne said. “And the prices are higher. So it doesn’t take a lot of math to figure out, if you have a choice, you’d be growing lemons.”

In addition, people are using more lemons in cooking, seasonings, flavorings and beverages. Worldwide demand for lemons is at an all-time high, but growers in Arizona are not producing more lemons to meet the rising demand.

“The problem is there is no more water,” Payne said. “All of the water is allocated, that is, in the rivers in Arizona. It’s actually overallocated.”

Harold Payne of Fort McDowell Tribal Farm shows an irrigation line underneath a lemon tree. He would like to grow more lemons, but “The problem is there is no more water.” (Photo by Heather van Blokland/KJZZ)

Cities and tribes have the highest priority in water rights. Farmers are last in line, which means a smaller lemon crop on limited land with limited water. Add drought, high heat and natural disasters and prices fluctuate even more, said Harold Edwards, CEO of Limoneira, one of the oldest and largest citrus growers in the U.S.

“And so that’s why you saw the price of lemons rise to very, very high prices toward the end of the summer,” he said, “because of the early season and the early harvest of lemons. Combined with the extreme heat in the latter part of the summer, there just wasn’t enough supply to meet the demand.”

Edwards’ groves in Southern California were damaged this year by high temperatures.

“And the lemons on the tree really had a hard time with that, and the trees had a hard time with that,” he said. “And so you had a lot of fruit that was not able to make it through that heat event and fell onto the ground.”

In early June, the average price of a lemon box was $36. By July, it was $55. By mid-September, $70.

Edwards said consumers “tend to be somewhat inelastic from the standpoint of, if you go to the grocery store and that lemon costs 30 cents or you go that same grocery store and it costs 90 cents, consumers typically buy lemons and don’t typically let that price differential influence their decision.”

There is no alternative for lemons when making things like lemonade or lemon meringue pie. Which prompts some people to take matters into their own hands, said Pamela Hamilton, publisher and editor of Edible Phoenix magazine.

“There are actually some people who go and see a tree that isn’t being used and go knock on a door and ask if it can be foraged,” she said, but other people don’t bother to ask for permission.

“I say (that) as someone whose lemon tree was stripped of lemons while she was on vacation last year,” said Hamilton, who bemoans the decline of agriculture in metro Phoenix.

“In the time that I’ve been here, the amount of farmland that’s been paved over and turned into housing developments is astonishing,” she said. “Any farm that’s still a farm, I’m happy to see that continuing.”

Harold Payne among Ft. McDowell Farm’s rows of lemon crops. (Photo by Heather van Blokland/KJZZ)

Urban encroachment is another reason the Arizona citrus industry is in decline.

“Because of urbanization, primarily in the Phoenix area, and a number of years of poor returns, the industry has shrunk to about 12,000 acres,” said Glenn Wright, a University of Arizona Extension horticulturist.

“At one point in the ’70s, the Arizona citrus industry – which wasn’t just lemons, it included oranges – was about 80 thousand acres. Quite a lot of it, maybe 40 percent or so in the Phoenix area, and another 60 percent in the Yuma area.”

Arizona lemons now grow on only 15 percent of the acreage they covered in the 1970s. Arizona’s lemon harvest for 2018 is expected to be its lowest in almost a decade, with production declining to less than half of what it was in 2011.