Scott McIntyre, chief executive officer of Sierra Pacific Farms, Temecula, Calif., slices a lemon for a group of journalists from the U.S., Canada and Asia during a Sunkist media tour Feb. 23.
(UPDATED, Feb. 25) TEMECULA, Calif. — For citrus growers in Southern California, water is the biggest issue on their minds. For the marketers, it’s the restaurant industry’s anticipated recovery.
Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, has up to a 75% market share in the fresh lemon industry, and with restaurants cutting back and closing up, it has been a challenge to move lemons.
“Overall, restaurant business is down, and lemons are down 20%,” said Leland Wong, director of marketing for Sunkist. “A lot of restaurants have decided to cut back, and they took lemons out of their water.”
The foodservice industry can’t get enough meyer lemons, though, and Sierra Pacific Farms Inc. is adding new acreage of the variety every year.
“That’s what makes us excited about these,” said Scott McIntyre, chief executive officer of Sierra Pacific Farms.
In the past five years, Sunkist has developed packaging specifically for meyer lemons, as they bruise more easily. The company has been working to get the kind of volume the foodservice industry can rely on for meyer lemons.
“Last year we had a difficult time getting enough critical mass, but this year’s crop looks very good,” Wong said. “If you have a meyer lemon pie or meyer lemon chicken on your menu, you don’t want to run out.”
Retail markets for eureka and lisbin lemons have remained strong, though, as consumers have been eating more meals at home. Wong said the larger lemons tend to go to retail, and the smaller to foodservice, so it’s been the market for smaller lemons that has been hurt.
Meanwhile, growers continue to battle with water restrictions in their counties, finding ways to get their trees the water they need.
“We have not cut back on water,” said Gary McMillan, owner of McMillan Farm Management, the Riverside County region’s largest grape-fruit grower. “The trees need water in the summertime, and they get it.”
McMillan is getting ready to harvest star ruby grapefruit in Temecula in April, kicking off that season, which lasts through July, until the marsh ruby variety takes over. Water accounts for at 65% of his growing costs, McMillan said.