(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.”

Grapefruit market

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.

California continues to produce more grapefruit, although Sunkist’s market share in the U.S. grapefruit industry is significantly smaller than its share for lemons, as Texas dominates the grapefruit market.

“California grapefruit production is going to go up in coming years,” said Vince Mazzetti, vice president of land management and development for Riverside-based Blue Banner Co., Sunkist’s largest grapefruit packer. “In 10-12 years, there will be more grapefruit in the Central Valley, as well, which used to be mostly oranges.”

Over the last decade or so, Sunkist has seen a complete change in the grapefruit lineup, going from a large volume of white grapefruit to almost none in recent years.

Psyllid concerns

In addition to water issues, growers are doing their best to control the Asian citrus psyllid, a pest that can carry huanglongbing, a detrimental disease for the citrus industry. Although the psyllid has been found in California, none of the pests have been carriers of the disease thus far.

Sierra Pacific Farms built new machinery this year to clean lemons coming off the trees in Riverside County, Calif., before they’re shipped up to Ventura, Calif., for packing. Riverside County was recently added to a quarantine list for the psyllid.

Sierra Pacific Farms ran lemons from northern San Diego County through the washing line Feb. 23.

“We didn’t want to do this,” McIntyre said. “We don’t want to handle the fruit twice.”

The machine gives the fruit a quick wash and separates out any stems or leaves.

Sunkist started using DataBars on its stickers for individual fruit this month in the U.S., and launched a traceback initiative in export markets in January. Executives are looking at potential Global Food Safety Initiative auditors for the near future.

The company is keeping up with the milestones outlined in the Produce Traceability Initiative, and is getting ready to implement case-level barcode identification as its next step.

“Part is putting in the software and hardware, bar code printers,” Wong said. “Our system is alpha numeric right now.”


UPDATED: Lemons getting ready to go in California

Ashley Bentley

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.