Califonia Bountiful

In the grove

March/April 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Growing lemons is anything but a sour business for Blake Mauritson

Blake Mauritson comes from a long line of winegrape growers. Now he helps grow citrus fruit. Photo: © 2021 Kevin Hecteman

When life hands Blake Mauritson lemons, he makes a living.

The sixth-generation farmer grows lemons and other kinds of citrus fruit in the fittingly named Tulare County town of Lemon Cove—both on his own and for his wife's family. From those foothills east of Visalia, on the road to the Sequoia National Forest, the lemons Mauritson helps bring to market can end up anywhere from the café down the street to Asia to anywhere in between.

California had 47,000 acres of lemon groves in 2019, producing 700,000 pounds of the fruit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Besides Lemon Cove and other parts of the Central Valley, you'll find commercial lemon groves along the coast of Southern California, mainly in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Deep roots

Mauritson's ancestor, S.P. Hallengren, emigrated from Sweden in 1860 and settled in Sonoma County. "Still farming from the Hallengren lineage are my father, uncle and my three brothers and one sister," Mauritson said of his family, most of whom still farm winegrapes in Sonoma County. "There are currently 11 grandchildren, making the seventh generation waiting to take on this century's challenges and triumphs."

Main squeeze

How did Mauritson end up growing lemons? "I was fortunate enough to meet my wife, Aubrey, in women's studies of all places in the spring of 2006 at Fresno State," he said. "My day job is working for her family at Kaweah Lemon Co. They have farmed lemons, navels, valencias and grapefruit in Lemon Cove since the early 1900s." He and his wife also grow citrus fruit, olives and almonds on their own farm, ANB Ranches. Plus, he helps the rest of the family with winegrapes up north.

A thorny proposition?

Lemons are an interesting crop, Mauritson said: "They grow fast, have large thorns and can be harvested anywhere from two to six times a year, depending on the growing region. Coastal regions can harvest year-round.... Where we are, we will harvest our lemons twice a year. Harvest can last up to five months." And the trees? Decades. "A typical lemon tree is productive for over 40 years, but we do have some groves that are still productive at over 70 years old."

Year-round bounty

"We are basically picking citrus from October to July every year," Mauritson said. "We start with lemons in October and finish sometime in early March. Shortly after starting lemons, we start in on early navel varieties. Navels and specialties will continue until April or May, market depending."

With a twist

If the glass of water your server brought you had a slice of lemon in it, you might have been looking at some of Mauritson's handiwork. That has not been the case so much lately, of course. "COVID has definitely had an effect on lemons, as restaurants and bars are typically a large purchaser," he said, but "retailers and consumers have stepped up to make up the difference because of the realized benefits—from health to sanitizing."

This one's for the kids

Farming runs in Mauritson's blood, "and like my ancestors, I don't farm for me; I farm for the next generation," he said. "I think that is what is really lost in a farmer's story. It is easy to look at farmers as just landowners, but the process that takes place is risky and long term. It may take upwards of 10 years to reach return on investment."

Kevin Hecteman

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