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.”

Impact on families

Faysak says closing the MCGA packinghouse was difficult and personal for many families.

“The toughest part was telling an employee who has worked for 25 to 30 years that they no longer have a job,” Faysak said at the packinghouse office in early August. “That was the hardest part of the whole deal.”

Three Faysak family members worked at the packinghouse for a combined 77 years.

“I remember coming down to the packinghouse as a young boy to visit my mother when they packed citrus on Saturdays,” Faysak reflected. “For many employees this was their only job since high school.” 

Faysak worked his way up the ladder from payroll clerk, to office manager and general manager.

At one time, about 70 percent of MCGA-packed fruit was sold in the greater Phoenix area. Japan was the single export customer; initially grapefruit with a shift to lemons in more recent years.

Like any business trying to survive, Mesa Citrus laid off employees, reduced overtime and repaired equipment when possible to shave costs.

“I am sad to see it go. It’s been a part of my entire life,” Faysak said. “I also look at it realistically as times change. Some things are out of our control. We knew we would close; we just didn’t know when.”

During the packing season, Mesa Citrus employed 150-200 people. All will lose their jobs, including Faysak.

Glenn Wright, tree fruit specialist with the University of Arizona, Yuma, says statewide citrus acreage has fallen from about 35,000 acres in 1990 to about 15,000 acres today.

Most citrus is grown in Yuma County; about 85 percent lemons. Yuma also has been smitten by urbanization. Acreage has dropped from about 22,000 acres during the 1990-1991 season to about 14,500 acres in 2007-2008.

“I think the (MCGA) decision will make it more difficult for growers in the central part of the state to market their fruit,” Wright said. “I think the packinghouse decision was not unexpected given the decline of acreage in central Arizona.”

Fort McDowell Tribal Farm

The Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Indian Tribe is one of the region’s major citrus producers. For next season, their farm will truck citrus to a Yuma packinghouse, General Manager Harold Payne says. He is negotiating with a Sunkist house while arranging semi-truck transportation for the three-hour, 200-mile trek from the farm to Yuma.

The Fort McDowell Tribal Farm has 325 acres of lemons, grapefruit, tangelos, tangerines and Navels. About 200 acres are in production, with another 125 acres, mostly lemons, coming into production in the next few years.

“The extra transportation costs to Yuma will increase our costs by several cents per carton,” Payne said. “That’s not enough to make an impact where we can’t continue production.”

The citrus will be transported in 1,000-pound plastic bins at night when the temperatures are cooler.

Payne says the tribe has no intention to alter its citrus production plans due to the MCGA closure.

“We’ve made a large investment in citrus and we intend to get our investment back,” Payne said. “Our yields are good and we grow high-quality citrus. This is prime time for our orchards. We’re going to stay with it.”

Most of the orchards were planted in 1996 and 1997.

Another challenge to bite the Western citrus industry is building fear over the Asian citrus psyllid insect, the major vector of citrus greening (Huanglongbing) disease. The disease has killed thousands of acres of citrus trees in Florida.

The psyllid has been found in traps in southern California and Yuma County. Huanglongbing has not been found in either state.

The pest-disease combo is causing some growers in every Western citrus-growing region to question whether to plant new acres or replace older orchards in citrus.

cblake@farmpress.com