Sporting a lemon yellow shirt with coordinating socks, a woman standing under an aluminum canopy told me that the Lisbon variety lemons I was buying (the only lemons available that day) were from the Sommers’ ranch, in Fillmore. Looking down, I noticed a bin of grapefruits sitting next to the lemons. That rang a bell.
I had learned from touring the Stow House that the success of Goleta’s way-back-when lemon industry was solidified when Edgar Stow combined the root of a grapefruit with a branch of a Lisbon variety lemon tree. This fusion protected the lemons from a common and devastating fungus.
I bought two lemons and a grapefruit and on the way home imagined the 350-acre lemon orchard in Fillmore and wondered how deep Goleta’s lemon roots actually go.
So I started researching and here is what I put together from available literature and conversations with lemon growers and affiliated professionals. The Sommers Ranch grower and owner, Shannon Sommers, began by explaining that most of his lemons are shipped to a wholesale house south of Los Angeles.
Even though lemon seeds first arrived in the Americas in the 1400s, with Christopher Columbus, it would be another 300 or so years before the lemon made its appearance in California. In the late 1800s, near to 1000 Lisbon lemon shoots were sent from Alameda, California, to Los Angeles, where the lemon-tree buds were grafted onto sweet orange sapling rootstocks and then shipped to Edgar’s father, Sherman Stow, at the La Patera Rancho. In the time that followed, lemons from various places, of additional varieties (including Eureka and Meyer) were cropping up throughout California.
Soon Edgar started tinkering in the onsite lemon lab (the foundation of which is still present in front of the Stow house). In the early 1900s, Edgar hit on the successful grapefruit/Lisbon, the product of which would end up on market shelves all over the nation and Goleta too.
Today as I walk through Goleta’s grocery stores I’m hard pressed to find anyone who knows where the lemons come from. I meander through the produce section at Vons, Albertson’s, and Trader Joe’s picking up lemons and scrutinizing any associated written words. I find one bag that says Farm Stand, Distributed by SUPERVALU INC. Eden Prairie, MN. I hail anyone with a produce box or name badge. At Vons, I’m told that all the lemons are local, with local defined as Californian. At another store, a grocer told me, when I asked about their lemons’ origins, “Even we don’t know where they come from; that would just open a whole can of worms.”
I find, during my produce walks, that many of the stickers bear the word Sunkist. A not-for-profit cooperative, Sunkist enables growers from all over to combine efforts to supply the nation. It has nearby packing houses, the closest being in Ventura County, especially around Oxnard.
When I called the phone number listed on the Sunkist website, I reached John Eliot, exchange manager for the Saticoy fruit exchange. While there are times in the year when other areas (including the California desert and Arizona) contribute to the bulk lemon trade, John told me, 80 percent of summer lemons in the U.S. come out of Ventura, 15 percent are from Santa Barbara County, and five percent come from Los Angeles or Orange County. He also told me that 95 percent of the lemons are Lisbons, 4.8 percent are Eureka, and hardly any are Myers, seedless, or organic. He said that the lemons I would buy in a supermarket today were probably picked a month or two ago. (I also find out that fruit bearing a Minnesota label was probably sold at one of the local packing plants: The words “distributed by” are somehow a misnomer and the fruit was never out of state.)
As for the local trees themselves, many, if not most, are supplied by the Brokaw nursery in Saticoy. There, using a sharp knife, like a paring knife, to make a v-like cut in the rootstalk and an arrow-like wedge in the lemon tree branch, growers actually make one tree by fitting two together. One driving force for varying rootstalk is, just as in the early days, disease resistance. A current common rootstalk, the macrophylla, if left to its own devices, would turn into a thorny bush. But the combination provides a hearty tree that’s fast growing and fruitful.
There are few of the old trees left from Edgar’s lemon reign. The majority of the trees you will find when you drive to the 700-acre La Patera Rancho, whose orchard is still part of the Stow family property, are from the Saticoy nursery.
The first building I notice as I ride through the green rows is a rough red wooden thing, the old lemon lab. Ranch foreman Dale Richards showed me around, pointing out original glassware: beakers, test tubes, and an old glass distiller. We sit at a large hardwood table where Dale explains how a machine drills into the earth to create holes where the small trees are planted. “At the last count,” he told me, “there were 18,334 trees.”
The robust trees are ripe with fruit. “If they’re yellow, they’re ready to pick,” he says. The 180 acres devoted to lemon orchards produce fruit that is harvested every 13 weeks, then sent south to a Sunkist packing house. So you may think you haven’t had a La Patera Ranch lemon, but you probably have, inadvertently, by buying a Sunkist lemon at the grocery store.
Be sure to catch the California Lemon Festival here in Goleta, where La Patera Rancho lemons were donated for the production of Hollister Brewing Company’s Lemon Ale—an opportunity for more extensive research.