California oranges: squeezed out

There's a squeeze on southern California's oranges -- but not for juice. Urban sprawl, with its highways and high-rises, is pushing into thousands of acres of land once blanketed by row after row of neatly-rounded orange trees, first brought here by Spaniards in the 1700s.

"Orange County just isn't orange county anymore," says Bill Martinet, and economist with Sunkist Growers Inc., an 87-year-old farmer cooperative which markets citrus fruit for 6,500 growers in California and Arizona.

Gnawed at since 1942 by everything from new houses and office buildings to Disneyland, Orange County's 65,000 acres of orange groves have been whittled down to less than 6,000 acres today, according to the State Department of Food and Agriculture.

It is decline mirrored across California. State statistics show that since 1971, California's total orange acreage has dropped steadily from 224,000 acres to 195,000 in 1977 -- a gradual decline that is expected to continue. Those acres represent a fraction of the estimated 5 million acres of US farmland that are lost to such factors as urban sprawl each year.

Oranges, both the navel and Valencia variety, are far from being an endangered crop in California; this year, in fact, brought record yields. In addition, the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley, while losing some orange acreage, has been generally unaffected by development.

But urban sprawl's impact has been heavy in the once-rural, now rapidly growing counties of Riverside, Orange, and Ventura, which have begun absorbing Los Angeles's urban spillover.

Soaring property values and land-hungry developers willing to pay $25,000 an acre add up to lucrative deals which many growers -- whose livelihood depends on such risky elements as the weather -- simply can't refuse.

"With urban sprawl, orange growers are finding out just how rich they are," says Jim Smith, a statistician with the state's agricultural department. "People are willing to pay big bucks for their land."

Many owners, who on the average farm 40-acre groves, have sold while the selling is good. But for others, it is no longer quite that simple. Growing concern among environmentalists, city planners, and homeowners over the loss of agricultural land has spawned a "greenbelt," or agricultural preservation, movement aimed at severely restricting development of farmlands.

Just last November, for example, residents in the city of Riverside ended a two- year-long controversy by voting in favor of a proposition specifically written to preserve a rural stretch of some 4,000 acres of navel orange groves. Under the new ordinance, land in that area -- said to produce some of the best oranges in the world -- cannot be subdivided into lots of less than five acres. The regulation effectively locks out developers.

And at the state level, where past efforts permanently to zone off agricultural lands have failed, a bill has been introduced this year which would impose substantial fees for the rezoning of agricultural acreage to developable land. Such greenbelt preserves are resented by the majority of orange growers, who maintain that the state or local governments should not be allowed to prevent a farmer from making a profit on his land.

The cost of running an orange grove is high -- approximately half a million dollars to start up a 40-acre grove today, say industry economists.

Many production tools -- including water pumps, orchard heaters, and fertilizers -- are petroleum-based and have skyrocketed in price along with the cost of oil. In addition, smog has been proved to decrease navel orange production by as much as 25 to 40 percent -- a particular problem for growers in Riverside County, where foothills hold in much of LA's thick smog.

In the long run, Sunkist economist Martinet says, although a "modest" acreage decline is expected to continue for at least the next five years, oranges "will always be produced in California."

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