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Does money grow on trees?

Lisa and I have lived in Redlands, CA since 1990. In 1996, we moved to our current residence, a 1.5-acre parcel in Redlands with about 100 orange trees. Our home has been surrounded by our neighbor’s 27 acres of citrus groves. Since 1996, we have enjoyed “country living” in the city of Redlands with hardly any farming responsibility. That ended when, sadly, our neighbor passed away. Not wanting to see the trees bulldozed down, a potential new housing development, or the possibility of someone letting the trees slowly die, we decided to acquire the acreage in November 2020.

The property contained 14 acres of Valencia oranges, eight acres of Navel oranges, and five acres of white grapefruit. The trees were between 25 and 70 + years old. The grove was in fair health but needed some attention. We set to work and began revitalizing the grove. We removed the five acres of white grapefruit as there was no commercial market for this fruit. The trees were old, so we pushed them over, ground them into mulch, and tilled the mulch into the earth. We then completely replaced the irrigation system, including the pump, cistern, hoses, filters, and drip system, and planted 500 new Haas avocado trees. We added a wind machine that turns on near 33 degrees and gas propane heaters to keep the trees from freezing during the cold, winter months. Avocado trees are more susceptible to cold spells than orange trees. It only takes one frost to set you back several years of growth and fruit production.

Today, the trees are about two years old. In the summer of 2025, we hope to have our first commercial harvest. The time from purchasing the land, planting the trees, and until our first harvest will be about five years. They say a good harvest for an established grove is about 12,000 pounds an acre at $1 per pound. Higher yields can be obtained with proper trimming, irrigation, and fertilization. Like the equity/stock markets, avocado prices will vary, and there are no guarantees, so you may lose value.    

We decided to keep most of the Valencia and Navel orange parcels and invested in improving the irrigation system, pump, and filters, along with some heavier tree pruning. We planted 400 additional trees within the parcels to replace some of the old and sick trees. In the first two years, we received a modest income from the orange trees, but not enough to pay for the water, improvements, and help. This wasn’t unexpected, as we intended to invest upfront in hopes of better yields in the future. Unfortunately, then came the Oriental Fruit Fly (OFF). 

In September 2023, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) notified us that the OFF had been discovered in Redlands and surrounding areas. The CDFA began quarantining all the fruit and prohibiting the sale or transfer out of the area. There will be little or no income from oranges in 2024. 

Food price inflation has been in the news a lot. As a part-time grower, I’ve learned first-hand that after investing in the acreage, trees, irrigation, fertilizing, trimming, and spraying it takes capital, patience, and luck to succeed. Up to this point, we’ve invested the capital, manpower, and everything else we can think of to succeed! Now, we are in the patience phase and looking for any good luck that can come our way. The luck we need is: 

  1. OFF is eradicated by the fall of 2024, so we can pick and sell the oranges in 2025. 
  2. Orange prices remain stable. 
  3. The upcoming winters aren’t too cold and hurt the more temperature-prone avocado trees.
  4. Avocado prices remain reasonable, and South American imports don’t drive prices too low. This occurred in 2023. We hope to recoup the capital expense, effort, and time to justify the effort.  

Americans, especially Californians, are very fortunate to have an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, no matter the season. Farming is a tough, expensive, time-consuming business that requires a lot of luck and commitment. Now I see why the small farmer is slowly going by the wayside as small farms are sold off for better-yielding investments like housing and shopping centers to name a few. 

My experience to date has taught me that “money doesn’t grow on trees,” but I’m optimistic and patient and believe that hard work will pay off.  I have no remorse in the decision to become a grower/farmer even though the economics aren’t there yet. It’s been very satisfying to see the land remain agricultural while providing food for the community.  It has given me a new appreciation for our food sources, a good form of exercise, and some additional purpose in my life.  Want to help small farmers? Consider buying from your local farmer, and please keep enjoying a glass of orange juice and some avocado toast.

~ Kerry Bubb