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Why Most Locally-Grown Oranges Are Picked, Packed, Shipped And Eaten Thousands Of Miles Away

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Aired 11/2/09

San Diego's oranges are considered some of the tastiest in the world but few San Diegans are eating them. We'll tell you why.

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Above: Even though local farmers produce tons of oranges a year, San Diego residents prefer oranges shipped from other parts of the world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. There are few fruits as satisfying as a ripe, juicy orange. Oranges look beautiful, they smell wonderful, and the taste is, well, when you get a good one, it’s fabulous. But often oranges picked up at the produce section don’t have that robust, tangy, citrus taste you expect from an orange. And what makes that so peculiar is that San Diego grows so many oranges right here in the county. Where are our country-grown oranges and, for that matter, our own avocados going? KPBS is presenting a series of reports called “Food,” tracing the food on our tables back to the source: the field, the farm, the ocean. Today we’re focusing on two of the biggest crops in San Diego: oranges and avocados. And joining me are my guests, KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma. Hi, Amita.

AMITA SHARMA (KPBS Investigative Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. Eric, welcome to These Days.

ERIC LARSON (Executive Director, San Diego County Farm Bureau): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you for inviting me.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we invite our listeners to join the conversation as well. Do you like the taste of the oranges you buy? Do you know where they come from? Are you a grower here in San Diego? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Amita, you’ve spent some time looking and tasting oranges in the last few weeks as part of this project called “Food” that we’re doing here at KPBS. Why did you decide to start researching oranges?

SHARMA: Well, Maureen, you nailed it in your intro, it’s because we grow so many oranges. Last year, we grew 95,000 tons of oranges so aside from the sheer volume of oranges we’re growing the other reason I chose this topic is because San Diego oranges are held in such high esteem all around the world. The oranges that we grow here, they’re considered some of the tastiest. Our oranges are going to countries like India, China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, countries in the Middle East. Before they go there, though, they are being shipped out – well, not shipped out but transported by truck to packing houses in Riverside where they are washed and sorted and boxed and then shipped out.

CAVANAUGH: Well, what is it that you found out about the locally grown produce being sold within our county? Does any actually get to be sold within San Diego?

SHARMA: Some of it does. Some of it does. I mean, growers will set up little fruit stands nearby and I think some get transported to farmers markets but that’s not being measured in terms of how many. The bulk of our oranges are being exported.

CAVANAUGH: And the local growers are okay with this?

SHARMA: Well, it’s not their preference but they are getting a lot of money from countries outside – from foreign countries, from overseas countries, who are willing to pay top dollar.

CAVANAUGH: And you spoke with a local president and CEO of Corona College Heights Packing House in Riverside.

SHARMA: Right. John Demshky is president and CEO of Corona College Packing House (sic) in Riverside and here’s how he explains why our oranges are being shipped abroad.

JOHN DEMSHKY (President & CEO, Corona College Heights Packing House, Riverside, California): Typically in our export markets that’s where we get the most money for our growers. Overseas markets tend to pay a premium, especially for California citrus, especially in San Diego County. The color and the taste of San Diego fruit is quite popular overseas so most of our San Diego fruit, we actually send to a foreign country.

CAVANAUGH: So where do most of the oranges that we buy come from?

SHARMA: Well, it depends on the season but a lot of the oranges that we buy come from Australia, they come from South Africa, they come from Peru.

CAVANAUGH: Eric, do you agree with John Demshky? Why is San Diego’s produce being shipped out of the county?

LARSON: Well, growing oranges is like any other farming enterprise. It’s a business. And so you’ve got to sell your fruit where people want your fruit and are willing to pay the highest price for it and have your greatest opportunity to make a profit and stay in business. In this case, as Amita has said, folks in other countries seem to appreciate our fruit a little bit more than we do ourselves and so it does get shipped out to those places because, you know, if you look at an orange, we have this vision of an orange in our country where it’s perfect, it’s round, it’s this unblemished orange color, and it’s cheap. And so that causes us to bring fruit from other places to satisfy ourselves where our fruit that we can get a premium dollar for, we ship someplace else.

CAVANAUGH: But it couldn’t always have been this way. When did this practice start of moving such vast quantities of San Diego oranges out of the county to other regions of the world and we import so many oranges here.

LARSON: Well, it’s the same thing that has happened in all agriculture in a lot of products. As it became easier to transport these products and move them around the world, you know, we became a very international market. Nothing we grow here is exclusive here. You can grow these products in other places in the world, so if you go in your market today and you eat an avocado, it’s probably from Chile. And so as we’ve created this ability to move fruits and vegetables around the world, we’ve done it because we have the transportation to do it and we don’t want to wait for the season. We want to eat fruits and vegetables out of season, which means they have to come from another hemisphere to meet those demands.

CAVANAUGH: Is that, indeed, the role that the consumer plays in this sort of musical orange chairs around the world?

SHARMA: Well, I think we, the consumer, have, for the most part, set up this system because, as Eric outlined, you know, we want our oranges to be bright orange. The oranges grown here have a greenish tinge. We want our oranges to be easier to peel. The oranges grown here have thin skins so they are difficult to peel. And we don’t like our oranges to have seeds and the oranges grown here have seeds. And, you know, I posed this question to John Demshky about the consumer and the role that the consumer plays, and he said – you know, because I said, ultimately, we eat food because we want it to be tasty and if our oranges are tastier than the foreign oranges, why aren’t we eating them? And he said, you know, the consumer needs to be educated about how to buy produce.

DEMSHKY: The U.S. consumer, as we get further and further away from farms, we don’t know the things. Like sometimes an orange may be a little green but it tastes great. So we are only fed what our grocery stores buy us. And that Australian grower has to pick his fruit a little bit on the immature side simply because it’s got a big voyage to make. Whereas when we have our local products in San Diego, we can pick that fruit when it’s at its prime.

SHARMA: And so I think that’s an important point to make, that sometimes these Australian oranges are a little bit sour. They taste – my colleague Joanne Faryon tried an orange from Australia and she said it tasted like a lemon.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls about oranges and avocados grown here in San Diego County and the ones we actually wind up eating here in San Diego County. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. Let’s hear from Natalie in La Mesa. Good morning, Natalie, and welcome to These Days.

NATALIE (Caller, La Mesa): Hi, good morning, thank you. My comment was that I pick oranges locally off the neighbors’ trees because no one even eats their own citrus because, like you said, they look ugly but the inside is the most delicious, sweet, juicy and refreshing piece of fruit that I’ve ever had, and they’re my favorite fruit because they are picked when they’re ripe and that’s the problem that the stores don’t have, is they don’t have fresh, ripe-picked fruit like I can get off these trees. Even though they’re ugly, that’s the classic way to eat an orange.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Natalie, tell me what you mean by ugly.

NATALIE: They’re black and they’re hard-skinned and like some of them do have green on them but they would look like something that had rolled around in dirt because they’re just really ripe and the skin is really hard. And I just cut them.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call, Natalie, very much. So we’re just, Eric, we’re just not used to seeing what really ripe fruit looks like.

LARSON: Well, her description of that fruit didn’t sound too appetizing.

SHARMA: No.

LARSON: It’s black and all. When we harvest our fruit, yes, when the fruit comes off the tree, there can be some residue on it from perhaps some insects or just, you know, deposition from the dirt in the air. But when you ship an orange out, it goes through a packing line and it is cleaned and it’s washed. And so it’s really – it’s clean when you buy a locally…

SHARMA: It’s prettier.

LARSON: …a locally grown fruit.

SHARMA: Yeah.

LARSON: Yes, if you pick it off a backyard tree and it hasn’t been cleaned, you might want to take it in the sink and scrub it a little bit to clean it up. But she makes a point that locally grown fruit tastes really well and we’re really lucky in San Diego County; we have 42 farmers markets. If you really want to buy local oranges, it’s not that hard to find them because there’s a farmers market in virtually every neighborhood of San Diego County, and we have oranges in those markets almost 12 months a year.

SHARMA: And I went to Jimbo’s yesterday and they were selling locally grown produce. I actually bought locally grown oranges and they were not as appetizing, they didn’t look that good as the other oranges but they were very, very good. Very tasty.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you about the other produs – produce, that is, that’s grown locally but sometimes not sold locally and that is another huge crop here in San Diego—I think our biggest—avocados.

SHARMA: Right. Avocados is our biggest crop. We grew 59,000 tons of avocados last year, and some of them are sold locally. We supply 40% of the United States avocados but we also import avocados from Chile and Mexico, and that’s basically because we, as consumers, want to eat avocados year round. So when they’re not in season here, we’re getting our avocados elsewhere.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, what does the amount of water that we have here in San Diego or the lack of water that we have here, how does play into the kind of produce that we produce, Eric?

LARSON: Yeah, it really drives the equation because what happens is our water’s either scarce, you’re trying to find local water, or it’s expensive if you use the water that’s brought in to use in the cities, you know, if you hook up to the municipal water system. So what that does is, it demands that you grow a crop that gives you a high return per acre. So that’s why you won’t find, in San Diego County, soybeans, corn, wheat, cotton, those kind of things that you have to grow in great tonnage and are very low cost to produce. So we grow avocados, oranges, strawberries, vine-ripe tomatoes, herbs, things like that that are higher in value. But it really does dictate what the farmers can do here, and we’re very concerned of what that future looks like because we see the price of water in a very, very steep upward incline on price. It’s definitely going to affect the number of farmers we have here and the profitability of those farmers that stay.

SHARMA: I think, Eric, you made a great point in my story that aired this morning in which you said that we, as consumers, have to make a decision, we have to come to grips with the price of water because if we’re not importing water for agriculture, then we’re going to be importing our food and that also leaves a carbon footprint.

LARSON: Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. If you buy local, that’s really a very good thing to do because there’s not a lot of transportation miles on it. You can imagine how much energy it takes to move that case of oranges from Australia to San Diego County, and they’re being sold at this very same time we’re growing fruit here or the fruit from Mexico, the avocados from Mexico that compete with the California avocados.

CAVANAUGH: We have a couple of callers who want to join the conversation. Mike is calling us from Encinitas. Good morning, Mike, and welcome to These Days.

MIKE (Caller, Encinitas): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, thank you for calling.

MIKE: Well, thanks. Yeah, your last point actually kind of dovetails into my question pretty nice. I was wondering if you figure the cost of shipping these fruits per pound to, say, Australia, a bunch of oranges to Australia, does it really make sense, is it really profitable? Or is there some sort of subsidy going on that’s covering that cost of fuel and also the carbon footprint? It seems horribly inefficient to buy oranges grown, you know, in another continent and then sell our oranges to another continent. It just doesn’t make sense to me, so I’m wondering if there’s something going on there. I heard rumors at some point, people talking about true cost pricing and the whole picture being sort of added into the price of goods and I was wondering if anybody’s looked into that?

SHARMA: Well, I know that the California Citrus Mutual is actually setting just how big of a footprint is being left by transporting oranges all across the globe. In terms of subsidies, I don’t know. Eric, you might know something about that.

LARSON: Yeah, Mike brings that up and that’s a really good thing to talk about. California growers, we grow just specialty crops in the state of California, no subsidies. Our growers are not going to the mailbox and picking up checks from anybody, not like the commodities are. We talked about the farm subsidies in this country; it’s really for the grains, it’s for the cotton, it’s for rice. It’s crops like that. So if we’re shipping something a long distance, it’s purely an economic decision that, yes, it does make sense to move that fruit. I can’t speak for what other countries are doing to benefit their growers to move fruit here. I’m just not an expert on that. But when we move fruit offshore, it’s purely driven – the entire cost is borne by that fruit and selling it into that foreign market.

CAVANAUGH: So when it comes to oranges, it’s a simple equation: People elsewhere want San Diego oranges more than we do here in San Diego and they’re willing to pay more for them.

LARSON: Yeah, and they’re willing to pay more. That is really the issue. Where can you get the price? I think I opened with the statement: Farming is a business. You’ve got to sell your crop into the highest return market. In our case, it’s not 100% but it’s a large portion, is those foreign markets. I don’t want anyone to leave the show thinking that all of our fruit’s going offshore.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

LARSON: We’re looking at maybe about a 50-50 mix, that which is shipped out of the country and that which stays in.

SHARMA: But I should say that, you know, oranges, at least for the Hillbrechts – are some growers up in Escondido, you know, they’re selling their oranges for fifty cents a pound. You can’t get that in the supermarket. And so we’re willing, we, as San Diego consumers, are willing to pay more for imported oranges.

CAVANAUGH: And you spoke more with those growers. They had a lot more to say to you. In fact, you actually tasted one of the oranges in their fields.

SHARMA: It was very delicious. It was really, really good. That’s not an exaggeration. And, you know, when you ask citrus growers how they would what a delicious orange tastes like, they’ll say it’s sweet with just a hint of acid and that’s such an accurate description. The grower I spoke to was Ben Hillbrecht and his family has been growing oranges for decades, first in Orange County and then they moved to San Diego County about 40 or 50 years ago. And I asked him whether he thought consumers here should be buying local oranges. Here’s what he had to say.

BEN HILLBRECHT (Escondido Rancher): Well, sure, I’d like to see that but you can’t make people eat them just because they’re grown here. They can buy them a little bit cheaper from someplace else. We can’t put them in the market for the price that they can put them in the market because their labor’s cheaper and it rains there. And it just puts us out of the business. We can’t compete with the rest of the world.

CAVANAUGH: So is shipping oranges to other countries actually keeping San Diego County growers in business?

LARSON: Well, sure. You have to look at the entire market. If we lost that portion of the market, then where would that fruit go? We’ve heard here, Mr. Hillbrecht just mentioned that if we can’t compete with the foreign fruit coming in here, we’d be stuck with too much fruit here that we can’t move. So, yes, we need all of those markets. We need to be diversified if we’re going to have a strong citrus industry here.

SHARMA: But I should also say that, you know, Ben said that he’s actually phasing out some of his orange trees because of the high water cost and the competition. And you had said, Eric, that just in driving around, anecdotally, you are seeing more citrus crops left to die.

LARSON: Yeah, unfortunately, farmers are turning the water off on their citrus groves. We hear this almost daily and so we’ve seen this. What’s going to happen is the growers who can continue to compete are going to be those that have groundwater, have access to well water, which is much less expensive. However, we don’t have a lot of groundwater or well water in San Diego County, so that’s a very limiting factor.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Paula is calling from Valley Center. Good morning, Paula, and welcome to These Days.

PAULA (Caller, Valley Center): Hi. Thank you for taking my call, and I’m very interested in your topic. I’m a organic avocado grower. I have a small grove of 300 trees. And I’ve been growing organic avocados for about 23 years. As far as I know, I was the first commercial grower to grow organic. So my comment is that I’m obviously a very heavy promoter into organic fruits and vegetables but I also find it really interesting if I go to Costco or other, you know, like the big stores and I see so much focus on organic, organic, organic, and I never see a little sticker saying this produce comes from within a hundred miles of here. And I’ve felt for a long time that even though I’m very much into organic produce, there’s a very – there’s no consumer education, consumer awareness, on this topic of buy local produce. And, I mean, I, as a grower, I know that my best fruit is the fruit I eat myself so – because I’ll wait for those Valencia oranges to be nothing but solid, straight juice before I eat them. There’s nothing better than a delicious Valencia orange that’s grown in San Diego. They’re just like eating God’s fruit. But…

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Paula. We got the point. Thank you, Paula, about the idea of people, you know, organic is one thing but local is so important to Paula and the growers here in San Diego. Is there anything underway to make – to let consumers know that some oranges are locally grown as opposed to the others who are not – that are not?

LARSON: Yeah, I can’t say that there’s a real effort to do that but we talk about all the time that locals – the new organic.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah.

LARSON: You know, a few years ago organic was the catch phrase, now it seems to be local. People are worried about this carbon footprint, buying local, and, you know, we would like people to buy local because it gives the local farmer the greatest chance to succeed. It’s really – something has to hap – so often, the markets want to mask where the product came from because they just want to have this full cart of products to sell. The consumer has to do a little work. The consumer has to go out and decide to ask where the produce is coming from that they’re buying. And demand can make a big difference. I mean, if enough people go into a local market and say, hey, I know there’s local avocados now. I want them. I know there’s local oranges now. Well, maybe that produce buyer will make a decision to bring in some local produce and actually label it as being local. I think, and there’s been studies that have been done, when like products are side by side and they’re clearly labeled, one’s local, one’s not, consumers will buy local but they’re just not that often given the choice.

SHARMA: Right, and I said, yesterday at Jimbo’s they – most of their produce’ll say, oh, it’s grown in the USA, it’s grown in the USA and then they have a small section where they say, oh, grown locally. So I think it is up to consumers to demand to know where our produce is growing, and I think as they become more aware that, you know, by and large your local produce does taste better than that which is imported, they will demand to know where their produce is coming from.

CAVANAUGH: We just have a couple of minutes left, Amita, and I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the study you mentioned that’s underway to try to figure out what would be a better practice for San Diego to engage in, to import water or to import fruit. We’re doing – they’re doing a study on carbon footprint, the very thing that we’ve been talking about. Tell us about that and when do we expect to hear the results of that?

SHARMA: Well, the results are going to be out later this month but it’s interesting, the person who told me about this is John Demshky, who is also a member of the California Citrus Mutual and, you know, I said, so this is a pretty important study. He said, yeah, but, you know, at the end of the day, it’s not that big of a deal because orange trees soak up a lot of carbon dioxide so if anything, even if we’re shipping them out, it’s still a negative footprint.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, okay. So he already has his results in. Amita, tell us, where can our audience learn more about the reporting that you’re working on and our “Food” series?

SHARMA: KPBS.org/Food.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, and what will they find there?

SHARMA: Well, we are researching where our food came from, where the food on our dinner plate came from. Joanne Faryon is looking at fish, salmon, and beef. Ed Joyce has looked at tomatoes. I’m looking at oranges and avocados. And there are video blogs there. There’s all of our research there. And the program we’re doing, a half an hour television documentary which is going to air November 16th at 9:00 p.m.

CAVANAUGH: Eric I want to – I don’t want to leave before I ask you, there’s big water legislation being debated now in Sacramento, a whole new idea of how to deliver water to Southern California, how to apportion water throughout the state, how to protect the delta smelt so that we don’t have to limit our water supply because of that little creature. I’m wondering, how important is this to agriculture in San Diego County?

LARSON: It’s as important as any issue can ever get. In fact, I’m leaving here and heading to Sacramento for two days just to deal with this water issue. You know, if farmers don’t have water, it’s a real simple equation: they stop. They go out of business. That land then converts to some other land use and in San Diego County, that usually means rooftops.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh, yeah.

LARSON: And so that becomes the issue. So we need to fix the issues in the state. We have a very aged system. It’s not serving the population. It’s going to be very expensive to do this. The farm community recognizes it’s going to be expensive but if you have no water, you have no opportunity to deal with the expense, and so we do recognize the system has to be fixed even though we do know we’re going to lose some farmers because the price will continue to go up.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we’ll check back with you on that. And good luck.

LARSON: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much to my guests. KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma. Thank you, Amita.

SHARMA: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. Thanks, Eric.

LARSON: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know once again about this “Food” series. You can see the reports on our website at KPBS.org/Food and the special, Envison San Diego: “Food” airs November 16th at 9:00 p.m. on KPBS Television. Thank you to everyone who called today. If we couldn’t answer your questions on the air, please post your comments at KPBS.org/TheseDays. And coming up, the transformation of El Dia de los Muertos in the USA. That’s next as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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