Life has a way of handing out lemons, and the positive thinkers among us are supposed to take advantage of this opportunity to make lemonade. Harold Edwards is a special kind of optimist. His life is filled with lemons?—?and all he wants is more lemons.
Edwards serves as the president and chief executive officer for Limoneira, a Ventura County, California, farming and agribusiness operation that began in 1893. Edwards and his management team are building on the company’s tradition of stewardship as it prepares to meet a burgeoning demand for food.
“Our lemon business has been growing significantly,” says Edwards, who grew up in the county as a fifth-generation farmer. The company produced 1.5 million cartons of lemons in 2010. By 2020, Edwards expects Limoneira to meet lofty new goals. “Our objective is to supply more than 10 million boxes and become the world leader in fresh lemons,” he says.
Land of Everlasting Summer
That’s an optimistic view, but there’s something about this central coast area of California that inspires a positive outlook. Spanish explorers visiting the area that now surrounds the town of Santa Paula?—?the headquarters for Limoneira?—?observed the mild, Mediterranean climate and called it the “land of everlasting summer.” A Limoneira employee, Katie Lopez, wrote about the area in a 1923 diary entry, describing the land as “covered with ferns, wild flowers, and big oak trees. It is a dream place.”
Wallace Hardison, drawn to the area by the state’s oil boom, and Nathan Blanchard, the founder of Santa Paula, started Limoneira with the purchase of 413 acres in 1893, growing lemons, oranges, and walnuts. After a slow start, the company became a leader in the citrus industry by the 1920s.
Limoneira has been a picture of steady and stable growth through the years, being guided by only five different chief executive officers from 1893 until Edwards took over in 2003. The company now operates approximately 3,200 acres in Ventura County, part of its 11,000 acres of operations; while it grows a number of fruit and nut crops, the primary focus is on lemon and avocado production. Limoneira is North America’s largest lemon producer and the nation’s top supplier of avocado. Limoneira also is the oldest continuously operated U.S. citrus-packing enterprise.
Our objective is to supply more than 10 million boxes and become the world leader in fresh lemons. ”
Steward of the Land
“Limoneira’s mission is to preserve and promote its tradition, heritage, and legacy in agriculture, community development, and stewardship,” Edwards says. “Limoneira has been a good steward of the community for more than 120 years, and I was able to experience this first-hand as I grew up.”
The citrus business is labor intensive, and from its earliest days, Limoneira developed a reputation as a good place to work. Those workers needed housing, so the company organized Santa Paula’s first subdivision, and donated land for the town’s hospital. Building on that experience, Limoneira now operates a real estate division, helping manage development as Ventura County grows.
“Agriculture tends to shy away from engaging in a dialogue with communities, because we all know how difficult it can be to farm next to a city,” Edwards says. “We try to get involved because we want a happy town with our happy farming operation next to it. The last thing any of us want is urban sprawl.”
Life at Limoneira
Limoneria is building on its California citrus tradition and positioning itself for a future based on sustainability. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture California is responsible for about 91% of all lemons grown in the U.S.
Life at Limoneira
Limoneira also has recently headed down new pathways. In 2010, the firm became publicly traded on the Nasdaq exchange. The company was closely held by six multigenerational families, and the move provided a mechanism for shares to be more easily traded?—?as well as a vehicle for raising capital.
That same year, the company began direct marketing its lemons, selling the story of the Limoneira experience. “We were not capturing the full equity that we have in our brand,” Edwards says. “In a world where food safety and traceability are an issue, we felt that it was important to connect customers to our trees. Integration is our competitive advantage.”
Going “green” is another step in sustainability. Limoneira produces solar energy through involvement in projects such as the 5.5-acre “solar orchard” near its headquarters, which provides 1 megawatt of clean, renewable energy. It provides energy to the Santa Paula citrus plant, shaving approximately $700,000 a year off the power bill.
Installing the array required the company to remove 600 lemon trees, but the solar setup will sequester 32,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the next 25 years, scientists project, exceeding what the trees could have captured.
“This company has been proactive when it comes to being sustainable,” says Tomas Gonzalez, manager of food safety and sustainability for Limoneira. “Solar energy is just the next step in our commitment to the environment.”
Gonzalez points out that anyone can visit the Limoneira website and click on the energy tab to observe in real-time the output from the solar panels. “Limoneira is one of the greenest agribusiness companies in California,” Gonzalez points out.
Sustainability also is an integral part of daily operations, says Gus Gunderson, who directs the company’s farming operations in southern California. “Water is the lifeblood of agriculture,” he says. “We have an abundance of water at Limoneira, and the founders of the company were very wise to make sure water was available for generations to come.”
Squeezing more from each drop is the focus at Limoneira today. Techniques to stretch water include irrigation scheduling and moisture monitoring; the company also applies mulch, derived from recycled green waste such as lawn clippings. “The layer of mulch helps reduce evaporation and improve infiltration,” Gunderson says. “It also reduces weed and insect pressure on the trees.”
In addition, the company protects the environment by soil testing and tissue testing, allowing growers to apply only the nutrients that the crop needs. Limoneira also has been a leader in integrated pest management, Gunderson adds, using such techniques as the release of beneficial insects to fight fruit pests. “Our goal is to be good stewards by following a holistic approach to farming,” he says.
Reaching out. Since consumers seem to be less connected to agriculture with each passing year, Limoneira tries to get a head start on telling its story of stewardship by reaching school-age children. The company opens its doors to school tours, hosting thousands of kids. “I want to see a school bus parked outside my window every day,” Edwards says.
He is convinced that, if the company can just tell its story of sustainability, consumers will respond. This is Ventura County; “ventura” is Spanish for “good fortune,” and Edwards is an optimist. “Our goal is to supply market regions around the world,” he says. “Each day here is brighter than the last.”