The Fort McDowell Yavapai Indian Nation near Fountain Hills, Ariz., is betting that its 120-acres of new lemon groves can generate a four-to-five-fold increase in profits on land previously planted in Navel oranges.

“Mature lemon trees on the tribal farm can produce about 900 38-pound cartons of lemons per acre for about the same money and effort as Navels and for two to three times the price,” said Harold Payne, general manager of the Fort McDowell Tribal Farm. “That compares to Navel yields in the 250 to 350 carton range.”

The Fort McDowell Tribe began farming in the early 1980s. The citrus orchards planted in the late 1990s include Rio Red grapefruit, Fairchild tangerines, Parent Washington Navel oranges, Minneola tangelos, plus Lisbon 8A and Corona Foothill lemons.

“Navels rarely have made money for us,” Payne said. “Prices were never high enough coupled with the low yield to make much of a profit.”

Ironically the farm financially recorded a small profit on the remaining 48 Navel acres last season with yields in the 350 to 375 carton/acre range.

Darrin Patterson, Tribal orchard manager, said, “The Navel is a high-quality piece of fruit, but we rarely broke even in a high-yielding year.”

About 80 percent of the Fort McDowell farm’s citrus acreage is packed at Sunkist’s Mesa Citrus Growers Association in Mesa, Ariz. Co-op General Manager Bill Faysak reports Navel yields this past crop year in central Arizona averaged about 300 field boxes per acre. Navel prices ranged from $10 to $11 per 40-pound carton. Navels are harvested from early November through late February.

“Growers don’t normally pick all of the fruit due to some unmarketability conditions,” Faysak said.

Growers picked an average of 700 to 750 field boxes of lemons per acre this last crop year, Faysak says. Lemon prices were similar to Navels, but lower than usual due to higher production and reduced demand sparked by the recession.

Urban expansion has reduced citrus acreage to an estimated 1,900 to 2,200 citrus acres in central Arizona, according to Faysak.

When most of the tribe’s Navel trees were removed in 2008, 60 acres were planted last fall and this spring. Another 60 acres will be planted in October.

With 60 acres previously planted in lemons before the Navel removal, the tribe is tripling its lemon tree acreage to 180 acres. All but 10 acres are the Lisbon 8A variety on the Macrophylla root stock.

The farm is located five miles north of the tribe’s casino on the Beeline Highway northeast of Phoenix. The Indian Nation stretches 10 miles from the north-to-south and four miles from east-to-west.

The 2,000-acre operation also includes 1,000 acres of Western Schley pecans and 700 acres of alfalfa sold for the horse hay market.

Two decades ago Arizona Navel growers enjoyed a niche market delivering the first Navels to market, commanding premium prices to growers, Payne said. Since then, California citrus breeders have developed early Navels cutting into the Arizona edge.

“In Arizona the conventional Navel acreage, that’s everything except for the Cara Cara (pink Navel), is coming out and lemons are going in,” according to Glenn Wright, citrus specialist with the University of Arizona, Yuma, Ariz. “Cara Cara brings higher returns to growers.”

Lemons represent 60 percent to 70 percent of Arizona’s citrus crop, Wright says.

Lemons thrive on Fort McDowell’s marginal, rocky-gravely soil, Payne says. One hundred trees per acre are planted in 22-by-24 foot spacing, identical to the previous Navels.

The vigorous trees grow four-feet annually perpetuating hedging and topping mostly by machine to maintain a 12-foot height. Brush is burned in pits in small amounts to reduce smoke.

The nearby Verde River provides irrigation water. About five acre-feet of water is applied to the lemon orchards annually. Micro sprayers disperse water in a 16-foot circle twice a week for 12 to 18 hours each.

Patterson manages the irrigation with a wireless Internet-connected laptop computer in the office and truck. An irrigator checks each tree twice weekly to ensure proper moisture.

Major lemon pests on the Maricopa County farm include citrus thrips controlled by the product Success plus Dimethoate formulations. Occasional mite pressure in late April is managed by rain or a sulfur mix applied with an air blast sprayer.

Birds and javelinas are fruit predators. Often, a crow will pluck a Navel orange from a tree and fly away with the entire fruit in its beak.

Payne and Patterson are concerned with another threat, Huanglongbing disease (HLB), citrus greening, which was found in Florida’s citrus industry in 2005. The tree-killing disease is vectored by the Asian citrus psyllid.

Over 1,300 psyllids have been captured in San Diego and Imperial counties in Southern California with no finds in Arizona. HLB has not been confirmed in either state.

“We’re concerned about citrus greening,” Payne said, “but we don’t know if the disease can withstand the hot, dry desert climate. Citrus greening doesn’t concern us enough to change our citrus planting decisions.”

The bottom line at the Fort McDowell farm is producing high-quality citrus.

“It’s critical to provide the proper amounts of water, fertilizer, and micronutrients through the entire year until harvest,” Patterson explains. “Important factors include proper tree hedging and topping, fertilizer application based on leaf analysis, and managing the weeds to ensure the water and nutrients support the citrus, not the weeds.”

Temperatures in the citrus orchards located at 1,500 to 1,600 feet above sea level can reach 115 to 118 degrees in the summer. The higher elevation keeps citrus trees warmer on cold winter nights and cooler during summer evenings.

Payne was initially hired by the tribe as a consultant to conduct surveys on which orchard crops would thrive at the farm. Payne and Patterson are interested in planting a low-seed mandarin citrus variety, yet are concerned about the impact of the summer heat on the fruit.

email: cblake@farmpress.com