Shaping timber and citrus industries

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Southern California based Fruit Growers Supply Company plays a key role in shaping two industries, as the farmers’ cooperative got into the lumber business in the early 1900s to produce cheaper shipping boxes for its citrus-grower members.

The 110 year-old company whose corporate office is based in Valencia, Calif., plays a key role in making shipping containers more affordable and readily available to citrus growers while also blazing new trails in the lumber industry.

A farmer-owned cooperative whose members market their fruit under the Sunkist label, Fruit Growers Supply Company still owns timberland throughout the West after operating as many as three mills in the early part of the last century to make its own wooden shipping boxes.

The company was the first to bring rails up into the woods, was among the first to use off-road logging trucks and was present as the timber industry modernized from mules and hand saws to chainsaws and feller bunchers.

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“With the transcontinental railroad, the wooden boxes were a good way to ship,” Kelly Conner, Northern Operations GM told an audience at the Sierra Cascade Logging Conference. “The orange crates fit perfectly in the rail car.”

Citrus fruit was shipped in barrels until the mid-1800s, when demand grew with railroad shipping and the boxes became popular with companies that put their labels on the sides, he said. “Citrus was the first agricultural crop to be advertised,” Conner said.

By the turn of the century, only a few companies were making boxes and prices for them had escalated, so growers got together to find a way to make their own for less money. Each box cost 23 cents in 1906, but growers paid 11 cents per box after they started manufacturing their own.

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The production of boxes ballooned from 6.5 million to 10 million a year within a short time, and by 1921, 19 million boxes were shipped, Conner said.

By the 1950s, packing houses were starting to switch from wood boxes to cardboard, which was lighter and cheaper, so FGS started to phase out its timber harvesting operation. The company closed the last of its mills, in Hilt, in the mid-1970s.

“We have our own carton plant, and we do sell logs to mills to make the paper that we use in our carton plant,” Conner said. “Fruit Growers own the timberland and produce the logs to run the facility to make cartons cheaper,” Conner said.

 

Article by Tim Hearden

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