ANDERSON, Calif. — Kelly Conner is quick to downplay the Fruit Growers Supply Co.’s monumental impact on two industries — citrus and timber.
“We’ve been a small player in the timber industry,” said Conner, the company’s general manager. “We didn’t get into the lumber business knowing what we were doing. We kind of learned as we went.”
Nevertheless, the 108-year-old company based in Valencia, Calif., played 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, the Fruit Growers Supply Co. 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.
“With the transcontinental railroad, (the wooden boxes) were a good way to ship,” Conner told an audience at the Sierra Cascade Logging Conference here on Feb. 7. “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, according to a company film that Conner showed during his presentation.
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.
At its peak, FGS operated mills in Susanville, Westwood and Hilt, Calif., as the scarcity of wood during the two world wars prompted the company to purchase more timberland.
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.
Now the company uses contract loggers on its vast timberlands, which include 277,000 acres in California, 17,000 in Oregon and 26,000 in Washington.
“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 in an interview.
The company plans to open a small-log mill in Yreka, Calif., to cut lumber for its fruit pallet plant in Visalia, Calif. The project has hit some snags, including a lawsuit by environmental groups challenging a habitat conservation plan covering nearly 240 square miles of FGS-owned timberland in Siskiyou County.
However, the firm’s mission is the same as it was in the beginning.
“The Fruit Growers own the timberland and produce the logs to make money to run the facility to make cartons cheaper,” Conner said.