A man placing crates of fruit onto a conveyor belt.

In the year 1769, Father Junipero Serra planted the first citrus seeds while building the California missions. Little did he know that he would become part of the history of California’s booming fruit industry — an industry that now earns California over $1 billion per year. Discover the humble beginnings of the citrus industry in the Golden State and five ways that the industry has evolved over time.

From the Navel Orange to More than 30 Varieties of Fruit

Citrus was grown on a small scale in California by Father Junipero Serra in 1769 and later by frontiersman William Wolfskill in 1840. However, the birth of the national citrus fruit industry really began in the 1870s when Eliza and Luther Tibbets in Riverside planted cuttings from a navel orange from a monastery in Brazil. This orange was unlike any orange the locals had ever known — it was large, round, sweet, and seedless, and demand quickly grew around the country.

Initially, the navel orange was California’s main commercial fruit crop and was transported to the Eastern centers of New Orleans, Chicago, and New York via the new transcontinental railroad. However, the sunny, Mediterranean climate of Southern California that made the citrus industry so successful soon proved to be perfect for other fruits as well, leading to the stunning 33+ varieties of fruit, including at least 9 varieties of citrus that are now grown by the California fruit industry, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley:

CitrusStone FruitsBerriesOther Fruits
Oranges (Navel, Valencia, and others)ApricotsStrawberriesTable grapes
GrapefruitNectarinesRaspberriesWine grapes
Limes (includes finger limes)Kiwi fruit
Passion fruit
White sapote

2. Citrus Growers Are More Organized than Ever

As the fruit industry expanded across the continent, citrus growers struggled to stay in the black as they were hit by heavy costs by railroads for shipping and were often taken advantage of by brokers. To gain more leverage for negotiating and marketing more efficiently, citrus growers came together in 1893 to form the Southern California Fruit Exchange — now known as Sunkist Growers co-op.

The last piece of the supply puzzle was securing a better deal on box shook material for making the wooden crates in which the fruit would be shipped. This led to the creation of another co-op in 1907 — Fruit Growers Supply — and this became the final key to the expansion of California citrus from Southern California to the rest of the country.

In 2020, there are over a dozen growers’ associations that support citrus, fruit, vegetable, and nut growers in California and provide resources, information, legal support, and marketing services to the fruit industry. While producing healthy, delicious citrus may be challenging at times, growers are no longer alone in the process.

3. Crop Solutions Have Become Easier to Find

Just as the California fruit industry began to flourish, the arrival of fruit pests threatened to destroy everything that growers had worked for for the past 60 years. Not willing to see their investments turned to dust, growers lobbied for a research facility that could help them tackle this critical problem.

In 1906, the Citrus Experiment Station was established and eventually led to the creation of the University of California, Riverside. Now known as the Citrus Research Center and Agricultural Experiment Station, this facility is a national leader in the creation of new citrus varieties, such as the Gold Nugget tangerine, and spearheads essential research in citrus genetics, physiology, breeding, and postharvest maintenance. 

Through the creation of this facility and an extensive network plus government-enforced pest-control regulations, the citrus industry was able to turn things around and become the nation’s second-largest citrus-producing state today.

4. Post-Harvest Handling Has Improved

Whole and cut oranges on a table.

People have always taken measures to preserve their fruit — from bottling apricots and making apple cider to coating their fruit in brandy and lard. In the year 1922, the fruit industry took these traditions a step further when Ernest Brogden filed the first U.S. patent for a wax-and-kerosene coating for commercial fruit. Not only would this coating increase the fruit’s shelf life in the shop, but it would also make the fruit more visually appealing and thus increase its appeal to customers.

Fast forward nearly a century, and nearly all fruits have postharvest wax applied through spraying and brushing before they are packed for shipping and sale. Produced from beeswax, sugar cane, resins, and carnauba, modern waxes are mixed with fungicides to prevent the growth of mold and glossy shellac-like substances to give the fruit that beautiful shine. Once waxed, fruit can maintain its freshness and appearance for weeks and even months — allowing our fruit to be shipped across the country and stay fresh and delicious when exported overseas.

5. Machines Are Doing More of the Work

At the turn of the 20th century, people were doing most of the work in the fruit industry. Today, much of the labor is done by machines. As part of a more recent movement known as precision agriculture, growers in the citrus industry are using probes and sensors to tell them which parts of their orchard need water and fertilizer and flying robot operators can even warn of an oncoming pest invasion before it’s too late to save the grove. 

What about picking and pruning? Machines can take care of that too with orange-tree harvester attachments and one-man lemon harvesters. It’s transforming the workforce in the fruit industry from traditional human pickers and packers to highly-specialized machine operators and technological innovators.

Fruit Growers Supply Company — Taking CA Growers into the Future

In the last 10 years, the fruit industry in California has come a long way. And it’s been our privilege at Fruit Growers Supply Company to be part of the process that brought us to where we are today! In the twenty-first century, automation and precision agriculture — along with an increasing demand for organic produce — pose new challenges and opportunities for growers in the Golden State. 

To be up with the latest developments and ideas, be sure to subscribe for updates and drop by or call one of our full-service stores in Orange Cove, Woodlake, Riverside, Porterville, or Santa Paula for personalized advice and niche fruit-growing supplies.

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