Mesa's last public citrus grove is going organic - East Valley Tribune: News

Mesa's last public citrus grove is going organic

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Posted: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 9:32 pm | Updated: 11:06 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Mesa's last publiclyowned orange groves have gone organic as the city enters the last phase of its citrus-growing legacy.

City-owned orange groves, Mesa Falcon Field Municipal Airport, Greenfield Rd., Higley Rd., Recker Rd., Brown Rd., McDowell Rd., McKellips Rd., 202, Sossaman Rd., Map by Gabriel Utasi/TRIBUNE

Dave Mittendorf and his sons are the last in a family that had once operated massive orange groves, an industry that once drove the city's economy, on hundreds of acres of land throughout Arizona, including Mesa.

As the industry dies out in the city, officials are making plans to use some of the land in their effort to attract big business.

Mittendorf now leases the city-owned orange groves just west of Falcon Field Airport, between McKellips and McDowell roads, and west of Greenfield Road. In the more than four years he's operated the groves, he's made the orange, lemon and grapefruit trees qualify for organic status free from pesticides.

This coming season he plans to sell the fruit to distributors aimed at getting them into local grocery stores.

He says he went organic because that's the only way his family can make a profit off orange groves these days; it's not the industry it was back when citrus thrived in Mesa four or five decades ago. Today, much of the groves in Mesa have become neighborhoods that still celebrate that history with citrus trees lining the streets.

"There just doesn't seem like there's a big interest in the fruit market," Mittendorf said. "All the old timers ... have either died or retired.

"More and more are going out because of development," he said. "It's better to sell to developers, take it and retire."

While Mittendorf watches over the crop, it continues to age. And Mesa officials have no plans to replant when the trees die. Their visions instead include industry and jobs, even hotels - something they say will be more supportive of the city, and Falcon Field, in years to come.

Boeing also owns a large portion of adjacent vacant land, and has plans to develop it.

"There's a lot of land, a lot of potential for a high-quality business park," said Cathy Ji, Mesa's economic development specialist. "We're working on plans for that business park ... we're looking for hotel users. We're looking for more of the executive users there, the high-end manufacturers and overall high-quality jobs."

Mesa spokeswoman Holly Walter said the completion of the Red Mountain Freeway stretch of Loop 202 is helping attract developments on vacant and orange grove land. The area is key, she said, in a shift the city is planning, "from being considered a bedroom community to a boardroom community, and drawing that kind of development."

Ji added that the city also assists owners of private orange groves, as they plan new developments to replace their own groves.

A large portion of the orange groves property that falls along the runway route of the airport will become a park or some sort of open space, said Corinne Nystrom, director of Falcon Field Airport. She said the company originallybought the city-owned orange groves to create a buffer between the airport and surrounding growth.

The trees are expected to have a few years left in them, but that city officials are studying what to do with the property, and working with the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with viable plans.

City Councilman Kyle Jones said that "working on some other industry is really the key.

"We need it to be a high-end, quality industry," he said. "And right now our economic development director is very aggressively working on that."

The citrus groves are "dying out, because people aren't going to be replanting those trees," he said. "It's not working out to be a viable thing for them."

Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh added that the citrus industry will always be an important aspect of the city's history, and played a big role in the city's early development in the 1920s to 1940s.

"Many of the prominent pioneer families were involved in those developments," he said. "Citrus groves were always used as an element in attracting tourists to the area as well. But the world has changed, and there is a lot of competition among citrus companies around the world."

To make ends meet, Mittendorf also tends to the irrigation and even picking of many citrus trees in neighborhoods that maintained some of the trees when homes replaced the groves.

His uncle's orange grove, Armisteads at McKellips Road near Greenfield Road, closed last year for good as his aging uncle faced serious health issues. Mittendorf said that much of that land is slated to become houses.

Mittendorf said the trees in the city's grove, which has been there for 50 to 60 years, would still thrive while the city and Boeing make plans for the property.

Mittendorf agrees that the ultimate future of the land is an industrial park. For now, he's in no rush, the trees on the city's grove "could go on for a number of years," he said.

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