Surprisingly, despite decades of urban development and the paving over of countless groves and orchards in the name of new housing tracts, with a little work one can still buy oranges grown in the few remaining groves that dot Orange County.
The presence of Orange County oranges at a number of farmers market in the region is in no small part due to the efforts of Don Neff, President of Neff Ranch, one of the last remaining orange growers in the county. After relocating to Southern California from Washington, Neff, a homebuilder and developer, was presented in with the opportunity to manage the remaining orange orchard on the Yorba Linda, CA estate of Susanna Bixby Bryant.
The location of the estate’s 21-acre orchard in the Santa Ana River floodplain kept its 4,000 Valencia orange trees safe from being bulldozed for new housing. In addition to the orchard that it manages at the Susanna Bixby Bryant estate, Neff Ranch also manages a 13-acre Hass avocado orchard in Tustin that is located on the hillsides of the Emerson tract subdivision.
Neff says both properties are productive and viable, but there was quite a bit of work to do in 1995 when he first took over the Yorba Linda acreage. At the time, it included mostly Valencia oranges, which Neff describes as a “rare commodity in Orange County.” Despite the fruit’s high quality, Neff found there was little money to be made by selling to packing houses.
“So in order to grow cash flow, we got into farmers’ markets,” Neff says.
That was 16 years ago. Neff Ranch produce can be found in four farmers’ markets in Orange County and one in Claremont, which is located about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. In addition to selling oranges and avocados at farmers’ markets, Neff Ranch also sells juice. Last year it took advantage of a good crop of blood oranges to make a value-added juice blend from blood oranges and Valencia oranges.
“Blood orange makes it pink and enhances the flavor,” says Neff. “We charge a dollar more per bottle for that variety of juice.”
Additionally, Neff grows Meyer lemons, tangerines, tangelos, grapefruits and papayas.
He believes one of the keys to citrus success, especially in a place like Orange County with expensive land and not much of it, is choosing the right fruit to produce.
“Not all commodity types are profitable,” he says. “Certain commodities go in and out over the years—the key is to pick them right on the front end.”
He compares in-demand citrus types with varietals of apples, which are native to where he grew up in the Pacific Northwest.
“For years Red Delicious was the standard for apples, but now there are newer varieties such as Pink Lady, Fuji and Gala,” he says. “Similarly some types of citrus are more profitable than Valencia oranges, such as Gold Nugget tangerines, which are seedless.”
Since Orange County’s climate makes it hospitable to citrus and a wide array of other crops, Neff believes the county’s agricultural future is strong despite widespread development. The region won’t ever again be home to many large orchards, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be a prolific producer of citrus, avocados and more. In fact, he believes that citrus trees can thrive as integral parts of housing developments.
“Land prices are too expensive for someone to buy and put in an orchard, but there are oddball parcels here and there,” Neff says. “Terraces and slopes of subdivisions could be used for orchard development.”
These sorts of slopes and terraces are important, according to Neff, because without them homeowners may complain about their views being blocked by trees.
He also has advice for those eager to include productive trees in subdivisions: “There’s an inherent conflict between the needs of the orchard and the needs of the housing development. Soil is compacted to 90–95 percent in order to build—this conflicts with the needs of the orchard.”
Why? Because citrus trees won’t grow in such compact soil. However, Neff says there is an easy solution for this problem.
“The key is putting mulch around trees. When we did this, the trees just took off. It was a night and day difference—incredible.”
Claiming the benefits of using reclaimed (non-potable) water and the fact that citrus and avocado crops often require less water than do ornamental plantings, Neff believes that combining crop production with housing areas is an excellent approach. Neff Ranch’s Emerson tract avocado orchard has brought in income and even reduced homeowners’ association fees. Neff would like to keep replicating this model.
“I think this will be the future—it’s a coming trend,” he says. “Homes in such areas sell for more and sell fast, and it creates a strong sense of community.”