US: California orange growers raise cash for hospitals

A small group of California citrus farmers were, 15 years ago, on the verge of being swallowed up by massive wholesale growers, but have survived. They credit their continued existence to Thrifty Foods and Vancouver Island consumers.

Buck brand oranges now feel that it is time to give something back - by working wiht the Thrifty Foods to raise funds for provincial hospital foundations in need of new medical equipment.

"We come from a simple background and feel so blessed by Thrifty Foods and their customers," Buck Brand farmer Lisle Babcock told a gathering at Thrifty Foods Admirals Walk store on Wednesday.

"We can't express what it means to us, to be given the opportunity to be part of this," said Babcock, who was with his wife, Mary Lou.

Thrifty Foods is donating $1 to seven hospital foundations on the island and another six on the lower mainland, for every four-pound bag of Buck Brand navel oranges sold over the next four weeks.

The grocer estimates it will sell more than 500,000 single oranges over that period - about two-thirds of those in netted bags.

Babcock - a big man known for always wearing a cowboy hat, boots, a checked shirt and a Buck knife on his belt to cut up quick samples - said a deal with Thrifty Foods in 1997 saved the small farms dotting the foothills of the San Joaquin Valley near Terra Bella, California.

"At a time when we were losing our houses, Thrifty Foods cared enough and believed enough in what we were doing and in our oranges," said Babcock, who gets tearful telling the story. "I took a $24,000 cheque to one of the family farms, and they just started bawling, saying, 'They not only saved our house, but our farm.' "

Babcock told Michael Mockler, director of produce operations, and Alex Campbell Jr., then the vice president, that he needed at least $12 per box to stay above water. "They said it's not enough and offered us $16 a box. They really believed in us," he said.

Thrifty Foods helped most of the growers become certified organic three years ago.


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