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Why San Diegans Don’t Buy San Diego Oranges

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Oranges grown in San Diego County are considered some of the tastiest in the world. They’re sweet, with a hint of acid. But few San Diegans are eating them.

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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.

Oranges grown in San Diego County are considered some of the tastiest in the world. They’re sweet, with a hint of acid. But few San Diegans are eating them.

Many of the oranges picked from this grove in Escondido are actually eaten thousands of miles away. The first leg of the journey is a truck trip to a packing house like this one in Riverside where they’re sorted, washed, boxed and shipped out.

“They’ll go to Japan. They’ll go to Korea. They’ll go to India. They’ll go to Bangladesh," said John Demshky, president and CEO of the Corona College Heights packing house in Riverside. "They’ll go to China, Vietnam, Taiwan and Russia and a couple of places in the Middle East.”

“The color and taste of San Diego fruit is quite popular overseas so most of our San Diego fruit we send overseas.”

So if most of the nearly 95,000 tons of oranges grown each year in the county end up in foreign countries, whose oranges are we eating? Demshky said it depends on the season and how effort we’re willing to devote to eat an orange.

“The consumer has said long ago, they prefer a seedless orange. The only time of the year you can get a seedless orange is from the Southern Hemisphere so that would be Australia, Chile or South Africa," he said.

We also like our oranges to be easy to peel like the navels from Australia and, well, we like our oranges to be orange. Locally grown oranges have a thinner skin and a greenish tinge. Demshky said the color is merely cosmetic.

“It’s not an indication of the flavor of the orange at all," he said. “They’re sweet, juicy and an excellent orange.”

Seventy-nine-year-old Ben Hillibrecht has grown oranges in Escondido for most of his life. He said he wishes more San Diegans bought his fruit.

“You can’t make people eat them just because they’re grown here," he said. "I think they’re missing the boat but people they buy it with their eyes not the taste.”

Even though he says his oranges are tastier, he can’t compete with the imports so he exports his.

“We can’t put them into the market for the price they’re putting them into the market because their labor is cheaper and it rains there," Hillbrecht said. "It just puts us out of business. Unfortunately, it’s the truth and the problem we have is largely the price of water, probably even exceeds the issues of the price of labor.”

Eric Larson, who is executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said “Our water is imported here from great distances from the Colorado River or the Sacramento Delta and the price of water has been going up very rapidly but the price we receive the product has not correspondingly been raised. It’s been flat.”

That’s causing local growers to rethink their crops in an area that’s produced oranges for well over 100 years.

“I see citrus groves that have been abandoned. In other words, the water has been turned off," said Larson. "And so now the trees are becoming more skeletons of what they were. “

Larson said if more people bought local oranges, the trend could be reversed.

“When a farmer sells their fruits or vegetables in the traditional wholesale retail train of handling, the farmer gets about 19 cents of the food dollar, a very small amount, but if a farmer sells their food through a farmer’s market directly to the consumer, they’re getting 100 percent of the food dollar.”

Larson said San Diegans need to decide whether they even want produce grown here. If they do, they need to come to grips with paying more because of rising water prices.

“But if we’re not importing the water, then we’d be importing the fruit itself and there’s issues with carbon footprints that go a long with that as well,” he said.

The California Citrus Mutual trade group wants to know just how big of a carbon footprint is left by sending the oranges we grow overseas and importing the oranges we eat.

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