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.

Phoenix hopes to build mill to recycle certain plastics, easing pressure on landfills

PHOENIX – Phoenix may be the first U.S. city to build a mill to remanufacture plastic containers. It’s an effort to clean up one part of a global trash problem that’s been mounting for decades and is only getting worse.

Curbside is where recycling ends for most of us, but for the city, it’s just the beginning of the process.

“Yogurt cups, different things – not the common ones like your water bottles and soda bottles because we have good markets for those – but other types of mixed plastics,” said Joe Giudice, assistant public-works director for the city. He’s has been collecting bids from contractors so Phoenix can remanufacture specific plastic containers into new goods and fuels.

“Phoenix’s approach is, ‘Hey, we want to develop new markets,’ ideally domestic markets, and we want to have something right here in Phoenix,” he said. Proposals were due back to the city on July 18.

It’s been more than six months since China stopped importing most plastic and paper waste from U.S. cities, which it was remanufacturing and selling there. China’s decision, spurred by pollution concerns, has left an immense void. There is no other market in the world as large, that consumes as much as China – not even the U.S. That means the business flow of recycling essentially has come to a stop worldwide, and more paper and plastic are winding up in landfills.

“We’ve produced more plastic in the past 18 years of this century than in the entire century beforehand.”

Adam Freed, Bloomberg Sustainability Desk

In 1950, estimates say, we created 1.7 million tons of plastic. In 2014, the total was 311 million tons, according to Adam Freed, principal at Bloomberg’s Sustainability Desk in New York.

Overfull landfills aren’t the only problem. In a 2015 study, researchers found that 20 countries are responsible for more than 80 percent of the plastic going into the ocean annually.

Odile Madden, a senior scientist with the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, said plastic consumption and use is a cultural problem.

“We had to be taught, after World War II, to throw things away after using it once,” she said. “In fact, there is advertising that suggests, ‘Hey, don’t be stingy … throw that cup away … and just get a new one.'”

In just the past 20 years, there has been a noticeable rise in “convenience plastic”: water bottles, straws and cutlery, used once and thrown away. It’s a key component of America’s throwaway culture.

Freed said even if the recycling industry eventually finds a way to capture more of what can be recycled, there’s still the problem of landfills reaching capacity. Western states have about 20 years left, he said.

“We’ve produced more plastic in the past 18 years of this century than in the entire century beforehand,” he said, “so it’s just been an exponential increase in our plastic production, consumption and use. … Focusing on recycling once you’ve collected it is kind of like taking a Tylenol after you get the flu and thinking you did everything you could to prevent yourself from being sick. You’ve missed the opportunity to wash your hands, to get a flu shot, to be healthy, to avoid other people who are sick. You know that is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how cities can more efficiently and productively collect and manage their waste streams.”

A 2017 comprehensive research study on the history of plastic production says plastics outpace every other manufactured material for the past 65 years.

According to the EPA’s figures, Americans generated 14.3 million tons of plastic waste in 2014, the last year EPA data was made available. Of that, 2.1 million tons, 14 percent, were recycled. But officials from Phoenix, Republic Services and other industry experts put the figure closer to 8 or 9 percent. The 2017 comprehensive found plastic recycling in the U.S. has remained steady at 9 percent since 2012.

According to a report released at Davos by the World Economic Forum, one truck of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean every minute.

Madden says it all comes down to our changing attitudes and expectations of what plastic actually is.

“I’m expecting that container for the soda to be pretty durable, but as soon as I’m done with that soda, I want that container to go away,” she said. “I expect that it will go away. So, it’s a cultural problem, using durable material as if they are disposable and then expecting that they will disappear.”

Just 5 to 8 percent of any consumer plastic gets recycled. The bulk of the remainder gets landfilled, as it has since consumer plastic products became part of society in the 1950s.

Giudice, the public-works director for Phoenix, says building a plastics remanufacturing plant in town is simply about responding to what residents say they want, which is to recycle more.

“The vast majority of plastics that come in have nice domestic markets for those products to made into something else. But these mixed plastics, where we had a market in China, we no longer do,” he said.