ORANGE COVE, Calif. — The late Franklin Otis Booth Jr. — Otis to his family, friends and acquaintances — knew plenty about radar. After all, he was in his 80s before he surrendered the controls of his Lear jet to a younger pilot.
Booth Ranches LLC, which he founded in 1957, has in recent years quietly become one of California’s major citrus grower-packer-shippers.
“We grew below the radar by design,” said Loren Booth, Otis Booth’s daughter, a fifth-generation native Californian and now owner of the citrus company.
Otis Booth was a business executive when he inherited a 40-acre citrus grove in 1950. That original grove remains among the company’s productive farmland. It is known simply as Ranch 40, Loren Booth said.
Today, Ranch 40 is a small slice of the 8,500 acres of Booth Ranch navels, valencias and specialty citrus in the San Joaquin Valley from Fresno County south into Kern County.
As his investments skyrocketed Otis Booth’s wealth into the Forbes 400, oranges became a passion.
“Land and a growing business and farming on the land is something rather more tangible than a securities portfolio,” Booth told Forbes magazine in 2005.
As some growers switched to other commodities, Booth remained committed to citrus, Loren Booth said, though he did add a cattle ranch in 1971.
Adding acreage and marketing fruit grown only by the company helped make it a truly independent grower-shipper.
“The beauty of who we are is that we can pick only when it’s right,” Booth said. “The focus is always on flavor, on consistently good-eating oranges.”
That’s why Booth Ranches grows the somewhat rare spring variety among its various navel oranges, a decision made a few years ago when Loren Booth was sampling fruit on one of the ranches.
“One taste told me this was a keeper variety,” she said.
Quick decisions are earmarks of the independent, family-owned operation. There is no board of directors. There are no committees to weigh options.
“There’s no red tape here,” Loren Booth said.
Another advantage, said Neil Galone, vice president of sales and marketing, is that Booth’s residence is just a few hundred yards from the company’s headquarters.
“She’s never more than a few minutes away,” he said.
While Otis Booth built the foundation, Loren Booth, the company’s general manager until her father’s death in 2008, has been the architect of growth this century.
After acquiring a Porterville citrus packinghouse three years ago, Booth Ranches purchased the Sunny Cove packinghouse in Orange Cove last year.
The expanded acreage and packing operations necessitated a larger staff, evidenced by a series of temporary offices stationed around the company’s Orange Cove headquarters. A new administrative and sales office is scheduled to be completed by the start of the navel season in early November, Galone said.
Loren Booth credits much of her success to the California Agricultural Leadership program, put on by the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation.
“It gave me a vision,” she said. “It gave me the tools to see the whole picture.”
Roughly 75% of the company’s oranges is navels and 25% is valencias, Galone said. But about 40% of the groves are young trees that are not yet producing commercial crops.
The company also grows, but does not market, some specialty citrus.
“We decided it was best to do one thing and do it well,” Booth said.
The projected volume for the 2009-10 season is 2.4 million cartons, Galone said.
As the young trees mature, volume is expected to more than double to 5 million cartons in the 2012-13 season, he said, and that will mean growing pains for Mitch Butler, plant manager of the former Sunny Cove facility, known as Plant 2.
“Plant 2 increased our cold storage capacity by 35%, but when those trees reach maturity we won’t be able to handle the volume,” he said.
Does that mean more expansion is on the horizon?
“There’s nothing in the works,” Booth said, “But we always look at opportunities.”
Whatever the future holds for Booth Ranches, it is likely the days of flying below the radar are over.