A 78-year-old Western citrus packinghouse has bit the dust.
The seven-member Mesa Citrus Growers Association (MCGA) board of directors voted in May not to pack citrus during the 2010-2011 season at its packinghouse in Mesa, Ariz., near Phoenix.
“Closing the packinghouse was a very hard decision for the board,” said Bill Faysak, general manager of the MCGA cooperative. “There was a great deal of heartache.”
Mesa Citrus was the last major packinghouse in central Arizona. In its heyday in the early 1990s, the cooperative packed 1.2 million cartons of citrus each season. About 800,000 cartons on average were packed annually over the packinghouse’s history.
Urbanization is the major culprit. The writing was on the wall for a decade as bulldozers pushed out central Arizona citrus orchards so real estate developers could sprout new fields of dreams — subdivisions, strip malls and sporting facilities.
The numbers tell the story. Faysak says about 200,000 cartons of citrus were packed last season (2009-2010) at the MCGA packinghouse. From 400,000 to 500,000 cartons are needed annually to cover packinghouse costs.
“There was not enough fruit to run through the packinghouse to cover the operating costs next season,” said Darrin Patterson, MCGA president. “No one on the board is happy about this decision.”
Patterson is orchard manager at the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Tribal farm near Fountain Hills, Ariz., located just north of Mesa.
“We have a duty to do what’s best for the packinghouse and its current and former members,” Patterson said. “We are ceasing operations for the next packing season.”
Citrus was first packed at the packinghouse in 1932. Over the years, millions of cartons of oranges, lemons, tangerines and grapefruit were packed. The company hooked up with Sunkist for marketing in 1934.
In the early 2000s, the burgeoning greater Phoenix area was the second fastest growing metropolis in the nation, behind Las Vegas. Over time, thousands of acres of citrus in central Arizona’s Maricopa and Pinal counties were stripped from the ground.
Another reason for the central Arizona citrus production decline is evolving consumer demand. Consumers’ growing appetite for small, easy-to-peel, low-seed varieties, including mandarins, is shifting varietal production in the West.
“Historically, Mesa has been a major Navel orange production area,” Patterson says. “Navels are now bringing a lower price which has hurt the area’s citrus industry and the packinghouse over a long period of time.”