Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Mesa Citrus: Going.....Going.......

When European settlers first got to the Mesa/Phoenix area they found a system of canals leading from the Salt River. The early settlers made use of these abandoned Hohokam Indian canals to attempt to get water from the Salt River to their crops. Below is a photo of an ancient Hohokam canal.

This water source was trouble because of drought and flooding. In 1902 the National Reclamation Act was passed. This act allowed for low cost loans from the Federal government for reclamation projects. The Salt River Valley Water Users' Association was formed in 1903. Members pledged some 200,000 acres of their own land as collateral and a loan was granted that resulted in the construction of Roosevelt Dam, at the junction of the Salt River and Tonto creek. The dam, the highest masonry dam ever built(280 feet), was completed in 1911. In 1996 it was encased in concrete and 77 feet added to the height, increasing its capacity by over 20%.Other dams were built later on the Salt and Verde river system and a series of canals built to carry water to the southern half of the Phoenix metropolitan area. As a result of these canals agriculture was much more successful. One of the crops planted to take advantage of the climate and this stable water source was citrus. Roosevelt Dam and a modern Salt River Project canal are shown below.

Approximately 80 years ago the citrus farmers formed an association, the Mesa Citrus Growers Association. They built a packing/shipping plant in central Mesa and shipped citrus from there under the Sunkist brand. They shipped up to one million boxes of fruit a year. In 1990 there were 45 growers who were members of the association. In June of 2010 their numbers had shrunk to 13; that spring after shipping 220,000 boxes they decided to close the plant. Below are some photos of the closed plant.

The man climbing up the fence is not homeless, but my photo buddy and son-in -law Matt Reed trying to get a better vantage point.

What happened? As I see it the biggest factor is the loss of citrus groves to housing. Most of the time a developer simply strips all the trees off and then builds houses.

Some of the upper end developments have left a row of trees around the edges made a gated community and given them uppity names like “The Groves”. A few have left the trees intact except to make roads and included irrigation water rights to the lots. We live in such an area. You can see the rows of citrus in our front yards in the photo below.

In our grove the citrus was planted in strips of type. Our lot had all navel orange trees; the house east of us has navels on the west half of the lot and Valencia or Arizona sweet oranges on the east half. A neighbor several houses east of us had all lemons. Our house was built in 1972 and some of the original trees have died. We have replaced them with navels, a grapefruit tree, a lemon tree, a lime tree and a tangerine.

There are still some commercial groves. They sell fruit locally through their own retail stores(see below) and some ship to Yuma or out of state for packing and distribution.

Below is a photo taken at a still functioning commercial grove.

Notice that the natural growth of the tree forms a skirt that goes virtually to the ground. This protects the trunk from sunburn. We suburbanites with citrus don't allow this skirt to develop so we can mow our lawns; thus the white painted trunks shown on our neighborhood trees to prevent sunburn. Two other items of interest in this picture: the tall fan and the square cut of the rows of trees. The fan stirs the air on cold nights to try and prevent frost damage. The trees are trimmed square by a frame with mechanical saws that fits over a row of trees and moves along the row trimming the trees to a uniform squareness. Makes picking and general care much easier.

One of the nice things about citrus is that you don't have to pick them all at once the minute they get ripe. Leave them on the tree—they last a long time. We start picking oranges in December and pick as needed until they are gone, usually some time in April. Real living is orange juice squeezed each day from oranges picked that morning. Our grapefruit season starts in February and runs until about August. The longer a grapefruit is on the tree the sweeter they get. Below are some of our home grown fresh picked citrus. Enjoy!


  1. I never knew that about the white paint or how you can leave the fruit on the trees.

    That's a surreal pic of Matt.

    Love old weathered adverts on buildings like that top one.

  2. We had to buy some anemic looking lemons the other day for 80c each and I was bemoaning not being in Mesa. (I refused to buy the 75c each shriveled limes!) Great pictures and commentary!