Immortalized in orange crate art and the detective stories of Raymond Chandler, the citrus industry of Southern California is an important part of San Diego County’s history, culture, and economy.

Today, citrus constitutes one of the largest sectors of San Diego County’s agricultural output. Among our top 10 annual crops are lemons, at over $70 million a year, and oranges, at more than $43 million. Other local citrus production includes grapefruit, limes, and tangerines.

Image from the archives of Spring Valley Historical Society

Andy Lyall, along with his brother Tim, is a fourth-generation citrus farmer, raising mostly oranges, as well as avocados. Their father Warren still keeps a hand in running the family’s Rancho Monte Vista orchard, which occupies 250 acres in Pauma Valley.

“We only use groundwater, and water is our most precious resource,” says Andy. To save water, the Lyalls employ drip irrigation as well as a micro sprinkler system. They plan to upgrade further to a subsurface irrigation system. “Water goes right into the ground, eliminating the loss of water due to surface evaporation,” Lyall says. As electricity to power the pumps is a big fixed cost, 10 years ago the Lyalls converted an acre of their land to solar panels to power their pumps. The panels save $75,000 a year.

Pests remain a challenge for local citrus farmers. Currently, growers are girding against the Asian citrus psyllid, a sap-sucking insect first found in the US in Florida in 1998. The insect itself is not detrimental to citrus, but the psyllid serves as a vector for huanglongbing (citrus greening disease), a bacteria that is fatal to citrus trees.

The psyllid has devastated the citrus crops of Florida. The pest has also been found in Los Angeles County, Orange County, and outside Tijuana, but so far, San Diego County has been safe.

Lyall explains that our local farmers have kept the psyllid at bay through voluntary cooperation, with all of the farmers doing their part to protect against the pest. The farmers have nonetheless set up a pest control district. The district works as a type of carrot-and-stick banking system for the farmers: The district taxes the farmers and then uses the tax dollars to reimburse the farmers when they treat their crops for the psyllid.

Like other farmers, Lyall has spoken up about the trials of keeping pace with paperwork and state regulations. According to the Citrus Research Board, an industry group that advocates for California farmers, environmental regulations—those not associated with groundwater sustainability—increase costs by $67.00 per acre of citrus. The same report claims that new labor requirements could raise costs by as much as $357 an acre.

Much of where San Diegans live used to be citrus groves. Photographs from 1910 show orchards as far as the eye can see in Chula Vista. The landscape was similar in Lemon Grove, El Cajon, and other parts of the county that are now suburbia.

As houses and development spread, some farmers moved production to the desert of Borrego. Hal Seley established Seley Ranch in Borrego in 1957. On 370 acres the ranch produces lemons, tangerines, and grapefruit, including the ranch’s signature Seley Red grapefruit, which is prized for its sweetness.

Hal’s son Jim started working on the ranch in 1964 and now manages the ranch with his son Mike. The Seleys are known for innovation, installing solar panels and using drip irrigation for the past 50 years.

Despite water-saving efforts, groundwater on which the Borrego farms rely has been declining for decades, as much as two feet a year and 125 feet in all. Agriculture uses about 70% of the water drawn from the aquifer.

State regulations may require a reduction of as much as 75% on the draw of the Borrego aquifer. Despite the threat of cutbacks, Seley plans on keeping his farm in Borrego. “For ourselves, the orchard is personal. I was raised spending time in Borrego Springs and have become personally attached to the land and the town,” he says. Keeping the farm may entail farming fewer acres.

The future for our citrus industry may be seen with Dennis Selder and George Tubon. The two San Diego natives plan on farming 10 acres in Dulzura. The rural community has had a climate conducive to vineyards, not citrus, which need moderate, frost-free climate. But, Selder points out, “We’re banking on climate change. The number of frost days is decreasing.”

The partners emphasize their commitment to the environment and plan to create a quality habitat made up of native plants that will also benefit local animals, and includes a house that is environmentally suitable to the landscape. They see production—growing finger limes—up and running in two years. Selder says, “Nothing tastes better in a gin and tonic than a finger lime.”

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