As pioneers settled into the Valley’s fledgling communities in the 1880s, they established a booming industry by planting grove after grove of citrus.
The trees became central to the character of many areas for up to a century, until they were leveled by another booming industry — housing.
The future of the few remaining groves has grown even more uncertain, as farmers decided to shut down the Valley’s last citrus packing plant. The remaining 20 or so citrus farms will now have to ship produce to Yuma or California, or perhaps set up boutique fruit stands if their operation is small enough.
Either way, the loss represents the end of an era, said state historian Marshall Trimble.
“It’s part of our history, just like cannons on courthouse lawns in the deep South, back to the days of the Civil War,” Trimble said. “It’s part of your history, it’s part of your heritage.”
The final plant’s closing was revealed last week by the Mesa Citrus Growers Association. Its 13 members decided to shut down as crop volumes dropped, and it became increasingly tough to make money.
The plant reached its peak in the 1995-96 season, packaging 1.4 million cartons under the Sunkist brand. That plummeted in recent years, with only 200,000 cartons in the season that just ended, general manager Bill Faysak said. Much of the remaining citrus is concentrated in north Mesa, but he figures slightly less than 20 farms remain in Maricopa and Pinal counties.
Other indicators had fallen, too. The association boasted 162 members when it formed in the mid-1930s, falling to 45 when Faysak started at the plant in 1990. Some farmers have struggled to make money, Faysak said, because the cost of citrus has been flat for years even as production costs have gone up.
The plant’s equipment is up for sale, and work has begun to sell the 7.4-acre site at 254 W. Broadway Road. The closing put 150 out of work. Faysak said the impact has only begun to set in.
“It’s going to be sad when I walk out for the last time,” Faysak said. “What’s bothered me is how many lives are being affected by this.”
The closing wasn’t a shock to Nancy Mast, whose late husband, James, ran the plant for years and served a stint as CEO and as chairman of the board of directors of Sunkist Growers, Inc.
The couple bought some citrus fields in the 1960s, but even then, James was doubtful, Nancy said.
“Jim felt from the time he walked in there that this would not last forever,” Nancy said. “In the early ’60s, he said we had to do something else to prepare ourselves.”
The Masts sold their land in the 1990s, and a subdivision replaced the groves.
The Valley supported 17 packing houses when James began in the industry, Nancy said. With the nearest plant in Yuma, industry experts said the transportation costs could be cost-prohibitive for some growers and hasten the loss of more groves.
Grapefruit was once the major crop, but the kind planted here has fallen in popularity to ruby-red varieties grown in other states. Oranges, lemons and tangerines are the most commonly-grown fruits in the Valley.
The Valley has also lost sites where the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension conducted agricultural research. Important citrus work was done at long-closed sites in Mesa and Tempe, said Glenn Wright, and associate professor and extension specialist based in Yuma. A West Valley site closed last year due to the state’s budget crisis.
The desert climate proved a reliable place to grow citrus, Wright said, and any new pests or threats that arrived were controlled successfully.
“The only reason for the demise of the citrus is the urbanization of the citrus area,” Wright said. “The places that are suitable for growing citrus are just as suitable for subdivisions.”
He believes Valley growers can economically ship their produce to Yuma for some time, as some farmers already do that. Packing houses are needed for operations of more than 24 acres, but smaller groves could be harvested by a farmer and sold at a fruit stand, he said.
Groves can produce crops for 25-30 years, Wright said. However, many subdivisions built decades ago on old groves still have some healthy trees.
Mesa will retain more of its citrus heritage than any Valley community in the area. Near Falcon Field, a citrus sub-area has its own planning standards. Developments must retain some rows of the trees, especially along major roads.
A city like Mesa should celebrate the citrus with prominent plantings and plaques that remind visitors of agriculture’s importance to the city’s Mormon pioneers, Trimble said.
He notes citrus was one of the five “Cs” that Arizona’s early economy relied on, along with copper, cattle, cotton and climate. He credits the popularity of citrus to Scottsdale founder Winfield Scott, who planted groves that encouraged other farmers to follow suit. Scott traveled the nation to promote the crop.
“Scott was such a man of great integrity,” Trimble said. “They knew he wasn’t just another smooth-talking promoter. That was the beginning of it.”
Citrus is also personal for Trimble, who recalls picking oranges as a teen in the 1950s at a grove in Mesa’s Lehi area. He misses feeling the notably cooler air while driving through groves, and how the spring air was filled with a sweet fragrance during the blooming season.
“As a historian, I look back on all of it, and I’m sad to see it go. But I know that things change and never stay the same,” Trimble said.