PHOENIX – Between 1966 and 1972, Art Freeman planted more than 20,000 trees, transforming 240 acres of rocky desert along the Salt River in east Mesa into a lush citrus orchard. At the time, he was part of a booming industry in Arizona.
Now, the citrus industry’s days are dwindling. Rising land values long have made it more profitable to build homes than to grow citrus, and once the economy recovers, it will be only a matter of time before the last commercial groves are a thing of the past.
Even in the face of the inevitable, people like Freeman are doing their best to hang on to the lifestyle they love. And in a way, they’re almost grateful for the extra time the troubled economy has bought for their farms.
Citrus farming isn’t an easy job. The hours are long. The work seemingly is never done.
During the intense summer heat, farmers get up in the middle of the night to irrigate trees. In winter, there’s always the danger of a hard freeze that can ruin the crop.
Despite the hardships, the Freeman family’s agricultural heritage passed from one generation to the next.
“It was a life that was just great. I loved it. I could put in 12 hours a day on a tractor,” Freeman said.
Freeman, 72, graduated from Arizona State University’s advanced officer training program and could have joined the Air Force, but the farm is where he feels at peace, and the farm is where he chose to stay.
“I guess the land just drew me,” he said, noting that his son, Allen, 49, probably will be the last farmer in his family.
“I grew up that way. It’s just part of how I started and what I became.”
Freeman thought his Orange Patch farm and store would be his legacy.
That was before Loop 202 split his orchard in half in the 1990s, taking out 71 acres.
Freeman wasn’t alone. Groves throughout metro Phoenix were already becoming casualties of urbanization. Developers bladed row after row of navel orange and grapefruit trees to clear the land for subdivisions and shopping centers from Glendale to east Mesa.
James Truman, manager of the University of Arizona’s Citrus Agricultural Center in Waddell on the far western side of the valley, traces his family’s citrus roots to the 1930s. But just like the southeast valley, the groves in the west have virtually vanished to the point where the UA center is no longer needed. In June, it will close for good.
The Truman family’s oldest grove dated back to 1932, but after some family members wanted to cash out, it was sold for development.
“It was a stab in the heart to see it go,” Truman said, but it was inevitable. Truman summed up their dilemma: “I’ve been killing myself for all these years, I’ve been making $80,000 and my land is worth $400 million.”
No one seems to blame growers for selling out. Not when land that once sold for $300 an acre in the 1960s could fetch more than $100,000 an acre before the recession.
“There’s nothing realistic that could have been done. It’s a free-market situation,” said Lowell True, a retired University of Arizona extension agent who started working with southeast valley citrus growers in the late 1950s.
During the citrus industry’s glory days, groves stretched from Waddell to Peoria and across the Salt River to east Mesa.
Now, there are few groves left in the urban areas of metro Phoenix, mostly in Mesa. Everything else is on the fringes – 320 acres on the Fort McDowell Indian Community east of Fountain Hills and about 1,100 acres on the Gila River Indian Community in Pinal County, near Interstate 10.
With land values so high, it makes more sense to grow citrus in other countries like Australia, Brazil, Mexico and China, making it hard for Arizona growers to compete.
While the industry struggles to stay afloat, it faces a potentially lethal threat: greening. So far, the bug that has killed hundreds of thousands of trees in humid places like Florida and Brazil hasn’t spread to Arizona, but the vector has been found in California. Growers are hoping the bug won’t survive in Arizona’s dry climate.