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Riverside County production thriving, but demand continues to drop
US: Grapefruit growers in the pink

Although citrus production has shrunk dramatically in Riverside County over the last decade, the county continues to lead the state in the planting of grapefruit. But now grapefruit growers who face diminishing demand for their product are organizing for their survival.

While citrus gave way to development in most of western Riverside County, grapefruit groves have endured primarily on remote canyon slopes east of Hemet and stretching into Temecula. It is an area blessed with a microclimate that unlike anywhere in the world except South Africa produces grapefruit that can be harvested when it is summer here and ahead of bigger crops hitting the market from Florida and Texas.

About three quarters of the county's grapefruit acreage is planted in this unique southwest region of the county. Most of the remainder is grown as a winter crop in the Coachella Valley.

 Dave Kelley, 81, said in about 1933 when his father started planting grapefruit in Bautista Canyon on Hemet's outskirts which is now blanketed with groves, there was no electricity or paved roads and he had to dig a well for water. Although electricity and roads ultimately arrived and the Eastern Municipal Water District started delivering water in the early 1950s, the canyon's out-of-the-way location meant development passed it by, even during the housing boom of 2004-2007.

Industry experts say because of their market timing advantage, the bulldozing of grapefruit groves elsewhere and weakening of Florida's grapefruit industry by disease and weather damage, grapefruit growers in Riverside County currently are thriving.

"The economics has been better for grapefruit than for oranges in Southern California in the last several years," said Gary McMillan, the region's largest grapefruit grower. The value of the county's grapefruit harvest in 2008 was over $33 million, which was less than half the value of the county's lemon crop but twice the value of navel and Valencia oranges combined.

But a looming problem is that Americans seem to be losing the taste for grapefruit. The yearly per capita consumption hit a high of almost 9 pounds in 1976, then dropped to 2.76 pounds in 2007, the last time a calculation was made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

John Demshki, president of Corona College Heights, a citrus cooperative, said he isn't certain what is causing the decline in grapefruit consumption. "If we knew we would fix it," he said. He suggested that the fruit may be too sour or require too much preparation for people with a yen for convenience food.

 Or he said it could be that adults are not getting their children into the habit of eating a half grapefruit for breakfast the way their own parents did and so the younger generation has not developed a taste for them.

John Gless, another large grapefruit grower based in Riverside, observed that local grapefruit prices rebounded after falling a few years ago only because development caused the supply of grapefruit to decline in tandem with consumer demand. But growers recognize that they need to encourage people to eat more grapefruit if they want an economic future.

"You have two choices. You have to get more money for (the grapefruit crop) or produce more of it if you are going to stay in business. We are trying to do both," said McMillan. Consumers will have to be persuaded to pay more for the fruit or growers won't be able to keep up with the price of irrigation water, which continues to rise, he said.

Five years ago the growers and packing houses that represent about 85 percent of grapefruit production in California formed a cooperative to project a marketing voice distinct from the rest of the citrus industry. McMillan is its president.

 Since the California Grapefruit Growers Cooperative was established, its grower members have been on a learning curve, McMillan said. Last year the group hired Kari Birdseye, a public relations specialist with a master's degree in science, to help them put together a marketing program that will focus on increasing public awareness of grapefruit's nutritional value.

Birdseye said one of the cooperative's goals is to broaden the generational appeal of grapefruit, which seems to be eaten in the United States primarily by people middle aged and older. Another issue that needs to be tackled, she said, is that warning labels on some drugs prescribed for lowering cholesterol and blood pressure say they should not be taken with grapefruit juice. She said that is because for some individuals grapefruit intensifies the potency of such drugs. But she added that some newer drugs prescribed for similar medical conditions are not affected by grapefruit.

Birdseye said she is enlisting scientists at the University of California at Berkeley to review the research that has been done on the interaction of grapefruit with drugs and on the nutritional benefits of grapefruit, such as in fighting obesity.

In illustrating the marketing clout of scientific studies, McMillan recalled that about 18 months ago grapefruit exports to Japan increased significantly after media coverage of a Japanese study there that showed grapefruit helped people lose weight.

"The first step is to do a comprehensive review of the scientific literature to determine what health benefits can be authentically claimed and to see where there might be some holes where more research is required. Let's get the science behind us," said Birdseye.

Birdseye said she also is hoping to arrange a meeting later this month with Thomas Baldwin, dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at UC Riverside, to determine if UCR experts in the cultivating of new citrus varieties could help grapefruit growers, perhaps by breeding grapefruit varieties to enhance existing health benefits.

Tracy Kahn, curator of the UCR citrus variety collections, noted that one reason for the growing popularity of pink-hued grapefruit --which has all but displaced the white variety in Inland groves -- is that the pigment that makes it rosy, lycopene, is very healthful.


Publication date: 1/18/2010


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