So far, 2020 has been a rough year for California lemon growers, due mainly to the pandemic. Glenn Miller, president of the Saticoy Lemon Association in Ventura: “This has been the most yo-yo thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Especially last spring—you didn’t know from one day to the next whether you should bring fruit in and harvest it and operate your facilities.”
According to Alex Teague, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Limoneira in Santa Paula, the first signs of trouble came from the export market, as a container shortage, coupled with COVID-19 outbreaks in Asia, ate into the export business in late December and January. Then came March, when the first round of U.S. shelter-in-place orders either closed restaurants or restricted them to takeout and delivery.
“When the restaurants and bars shut down, that put a major hurt particularly on medium to small fruit, which is really a heavy food-service item,” Teague said. “Luckily, retail picked up with the COVID, because everybody knows the vitamin C part of things, but that couldn’t overcome the loss in the food service and the export.”
“All of a sudden, people were buying more from the stores,” Miller said. “That normally requires a different size structure. Usually, the fruit that they require is a little bit larger than the food service. That forced us into picking larger fruit, which meant we had to let it grow on the tree a little bit longer.”
After the initial shock, the association started moving toward normal harvesting around April, Miller said; September helped make up some of the early-spring losses, which he attributed to some food service coming back to complement the boost in retail.
Lemon growers who suffered losses found partial relief through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, said Casey Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter.
“We’re obviously very appreciative of the support from USDA that helped out these growers, because the returns they received this last year were negative,” he said. “Every little bit helps.”
Creamer said the CFAP aid helped lemon farmers meet their obligations, keep employees and “just stabilize the operations (while) hoping for a better year this upcoming year.”