The Limoneira Company: 120 Years of Agribusiness Pioneering

April 01, 2013
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By Judith Triem

In 1867, pioneering agriculturist George G. Briggs gave up his dream of growing soft fruits commercially in the Santa Clara RiverValley. Like so many before him, Briggs became the victim of the region’s notoriously fickle climate and water supply. Briggs authorized surveyor W. H. Norway to divide his 15,000-acre holdings in Rancho Santa Paula y Saticoy into a grid of 150-acre parcels, a more manageable size for family farming on a traditional scale.

Transplanted farmers from the East, Midwest and the California gold country eagerly answered the call. But a seasonal and unreliable water supply continued to challenge valley famers. Without irrigation, their staple products were limited mainly to grains and beans. If Briggs’ aspiration of large-scale agriculture in the valley were ever to be fulfilled, a new approach would be needed. In 1893, two visionaries, Nathan Blanchard and Wallace Hardison, conceived the solution.

Although 20 years apart in age, both men were born in Maine. Blanchard had arrived in Santa Paula in 1872 to establish a new town, and Hardison in 1884 to build an oil empire. Both men fulfilled their dreams. Blanchard laid out the town of Santa Paula in 1873 and planted the first citrus orchards. Hardison started several oil companies along with Lyman Stewart and Thomas Bard, culminating in the establishment of the Union Oil Company in Santa Paula in 1890.

Nathan Blanchard saw opportunity in growing citrus for the Eastern markets, an ambition he shared with Hardison. By 1893 both men turned their considerable energies towards establishing a citrus empire by operating agriculture on an industrial scale, a novel idea at the time.

Blanchard had previously experimented with citrus, planting his first 100 acres of seedling oranges on his Santa Paula ranch in 1875. Budding lemons onto orange trees, Blanchard began shipping the fruit in volume with the arrival of the railroad in the valley in 1887, allowing him to compete directly with lemons imported from Italy.

The key ingredient was, as always, water. In 1891 Blanchard and Hardison incorporated Santa Paula Water Works, Ltd., representing their mastery over the water rights to Santa PaulaCanyon. At the same time the pair, and others, also founded the Thermal Belt Water Company to pipe canyon water to 413 acres of valley land they owned four miles west of town. For their new company name, they chose the Portuguese word limoneira, “place of the lemon.” By 1897 Limoneira had set out nearly 50,000 citrus trees, bringing into realization agriculture on a scale unimaginable in the days of family farming. The era of agribusiness had arrived in VenturaCounty.

In 1907 the company greatly expanded by acquiring the adjacent 2,300 acre Olive lands Tract. With the enlarged holdings, the company workforce also grew—from 15 employees in 1897 to 250 in 1907. The ranch headquarters rapidly took on the appearance of a small village. Housing for farm laborers was provided for all, but segregated, with Mexican, Japanese and Anglo residents living in different sections of the ranch.

A Craftsman Tudor-style men’s dormitory and clubhouse was built in 1924 for single working men, and small homes constructed for the families of ranch foremen and superintendents. The daily necessities of the ever-expanding ranks of resident employees were supplied by a general merchandise store. A distinctly urban element was added to the ranch in 1920, with the construction of Spanish Revival–style courtyard housing designed by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Allison and Allison.  Everything at Limoneira was to be top drawer.

By the 1920s, the number of employees reached 400, and the company’s acreage under cultivation had quadrupled in less than 30 years. By 1921, Limoneira had become the largest shipper of lemons in California, and was touting itself (with some justification) as the “world’s largest lemon ranch.”

The company’s prosperity was conspicuous in its physical plant. In 1920, a Mission Revival– style packing house replaced an earlier, less stylish wooden building. The self-contained operation included a walnut packing house, tractor shop, fertilizer and oil houses, blacksmith shop, corral and barns.

Charles Collins Teague, a great-grand nephew of Wallace Hardison, was appointed director of the company in 1899 and served for a remarkable 50 years. Under his studied management, Limoneira became a true leader in the new citrus industry. He also held the presidency of the California Fruit Growers Exchange (later Sunkist) for 24 years. Many of his ideas and management philosophy at Limoneira were carried over to his presidency of the exchange and became an important force in shaping the organization. He believed the future of the citrus industry in California lay in cooperative marketing and the growth of superior-quality lemons and oranges. In 1929 Teague was appointed to the new Federal Farm Board by President Herbert Hoover, who called Teague “the most outstanding representative of the western cooperative movement.”

By 1948, 100 new houses were built and the ranch population soared to 1,500. In 1956 the Saturday Evening Post touted Limoneira as one of “America’s agricultural showplaces,” a status conferred by the U.S. State Department. The town-within-a-ranch had grown to 600 employees, 500 houses, 35 miles of roads, four churches, three playgrounds, two stores, two packing houses, fire department, swimming pool, a soil and research laboratory and an insectary. The ranch encompassed 2,344 acres by the end of the 1950s. 

The Limoneira Company continues to be a major player in the development of citrus not just in the Santa ClaraValley but in California and the nation. Touted as the world’s largest lemon ranch by the Santa Paula Chronicle in 1911, Limoneira today remains one of the largest lemon producers in North America, with 1,870 acres of lemons throughout California and 1,700 acres of oranges, primarily grown in the San JoaquinValley. The current focus is on raising high-quality Valencia and Navel oranges for shipment to the Pacific Rim countries. The size of their operations have grown from the one, now seemingly modest 413-acre ranch in 1893, to nine properties today, encompassing nearly 8,000 acres.

Limoneira’s avocado trees, first planted on the hillsides during the 1940s, are now one of the company’s most important crops, with 1,250 producing acres under cultivation, making the company one of the largest avocado growers in the United States. In recent years Calavo Growers moved into Limoneira’s corporate headquarters on the ranch, and the two agribusiness powerhouses established a crossequity agreement.

A demonstration orchard located at the main ranch headquarters contains over 300 citrus varieties, keeping the company at the cutting edge of new citrus products. Limoneira partners with the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Program to share the latest in California agriculture. Looking into alternative specialty citrus varieties in response to the ever-changing marketplace, Limoneira began producing exotic varieties including Satsuma mandarin oranges, Moro blood oranges, pummelos, Cara Cara Navels, Star Ruby grapefruit, and others on approximately 700 acres. Other specialty crops include pistachios, cherries, peaches, plums and olives.

The Limoneira Company has stepped out into real estate development in recent years, developing land parcels into single- and multi-family homes. A major undertaking east of Santa Paula is set to take place on the 523-acre Teague-McKevett Ranch, now owned by Limoneira. This development will become part of the City of Santa Paula and will include both housing and commercial uses.

The Limoneira Ranch is nestled against the foothills of Sulphur Mountain with fingers spreading into Aliso and Wheeler canyons, encompassing 1,600 acres of citrus and avocado orchards divided by windrows of eucalyptus and poplar trees, and natural barrancas. Despite decades of change, much of the historic cultural landscape created by the 1920s can still be read in this visually coherent district. Ranch headquarters on Cummings Road features two packing houses, offices, employee residences, warehouses, an oil reservoir, sheds, garages and a Southern Pacific Railroad siding. A wide variety of employee housing types cover the landscape that also includes a small park and barbecue area, grassy play areas for children, ornamental trees, and small vegetable gardens maintained to this day by employee residents. Together they tell the unique story of the birth and evolution of agribusiness in VenturaCounty.

Recognizing its unique place in history combined with its magnificent setting, the Limoneira Company promotes its vast agricultural grounds and special landmark buildings as a place for the public to come and enjoy touring the site. Special events are also often held on the ranch. The old company store now serves as a mini-museum in the heart of the ranch headquarters. Visitors can enjoy a packing-house tour, a dinner in the orchard, a Jeep ride through the hills, a game of bocce or a trolley ride among the groves.  Taking home a reminder of your visit might include Limoneira’s skin care products with a lemon or avocado base, or a basket of their lemons, avocados and oranges.

Today, the Limoneira Company ranch represents well over a century of agricultural innovation, begun by the singular visions of Nathan Blanchard and Wallace Hardison, and tended so expertly by the generations who followed.

Judy Triem is a historian and partner with Mitch Stone at San Buenaventura Research Associates, a historic resources consulting firm in Santa Paula. She has authored three books on local history: Ventura County: Land of Good Fortune (1985) and The Santa Clara Valley of Ventura County (2002) as well as The Limoneira Company: 100 years of Growing: 1893–1993. Her firm can be found at HistoricResources.com.

Article from Edible Ojai & Ventura County at http://edibleventuracounty.ediblecommunities.com/things-do/limoneira-company-120-years-agribusiness-pioneering
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