The Social History Of A Singular Fruit


The first attempt at organization was the Orange Growers Protective Union of Southern California, formed in 1885 and designed to oversee the sale and distribution of the crop in the East. The union did not require its stockholders to use its services exclusively, however, and it soon folded under pressure from the jobbers, who promptly got together themselves, divided up the sales territory, and refused to buy except on their own terms. Two smaller organizations were more successful : the Pachappa Orange Growers Association, of Riverside, formed in 1889, and the Claremont California Fruit Growers Association, of Claremont, formed in 1893. Both of these required their members to share in the costs of having their fruit “weighed, culled, graded, packed, sold, shipped, or otherwise disposed of,” and each member received his share of the proceeds on a prorata basis according to the quantity and quality of his individual crop. Similar independent associations were formed throughout southern California, and it soon became apparent that if the cooperative system worked reasonably well on a small scale, it might work spectacularly well on a large scale. So thought the Riverside Press & Horticulturist , at any rate: “It is so evident that no plan would be worse than the want of one, which now afflicts us, that it should be easy to better the conditions for another year. The damage done by the shipping of inferior fruit at prices leaving profit only to the railroad, the packer, and the commissionman, is far greater than could possibly result from pooling of all grades by the growers themselves. … The outlook for success in the movement is extremely encouraging.”

The little newspaper’s prose may have been murky, but its instincts were correct. On August 29, 1893, sixty orange growers, most of them representing one association or another, met in the assembly room of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and organized the Southern California Fruit Exchange. The region’s citrus-growing areas were divided into districts, each with a local association that would do its own picking, grading, and packing under a purely local brand. The exchange itself would handle the marketing and distribution of the fruit, break the grip of the middlemen, and distribute all profits to the individual associations, which would then pass them down the line to the growers on a prorata basis. As might be expected, Eastern jobbers put up a vigorous opposition to the whole idea, but by 1905 the exchange had established itself as the principal marketer for California fruits. It changed its name to the California Fruit Growers Exchange and in 1907 developed its own “Sunkist” label for fruit of the highest grade. In 1908 an advertising department was created, and in the winter of that year it spent $ 10,000 on a saturation campaign in Iowa, setting up billboards planting advertisements, and sending out “orange trains” bannered with such slogans as “Oranges for Health—California for Wealth!” While orange sales in the rest of the country picked up some 20 per cent that winter, in Iowa they increased by 50 per cent, and muscular advertising campaigns became a major part of the exchange’s operations; over the next forty years it would spend more than $37 million on promotion, until “Sunkist” became almost synonymous with California fruits (in recognition of this fact, in 1952 the exchange took on the name Sunkist Growers, Inc.).


From 1920 to 1950, the best years of its life, the exchange’s president was Charles Collins Teague, himself the owner of the 3,25O-acre Limoneira Ranch, one of the largest citrus farms in the world. Under his direction the exchange grew to a very monolith of marketing in a system that was a peculiarly American kind of capitalistic socialism (or socialistic capitalism)—although Teague himself preferred to call it a “federated democracy.” By the end of World War n there were more than 350,000 acres under cultivation, and the exchange had grown to a membership of 13,500 growers divided into twenty-six districts with 210 local packing associations whose brand names rang with an ineffable charm: Cupid, Oriole, Ivanhoe, Stalwart, Royal Feast, King David, Esperanza, Miracle, California Dream. … It shipped more than 75 per cent of California’s citrus crop every year, and its annual orange sales alone amounted to $50 or $60 million, nearly one tenth the value of the state’s entire agricultural production (itself the largest of any state in the nation). It was an all-purpose, all-pervasive organization, as fully integrated as any private corporation, from timber properties and a lumber mill and factory in northern California for the manufacture of packing crates to subsidiary plants converting culls into citric acid, sodium citrate, lemon oil, pectin, orange oil, and orange pulp for cattle feed. For mile after mile the trees spread over the land, their shining green foliage ornamented with the bright punctuation of their fruit: Valencias southeast from Santa Barbara to fill the Ojai and Santa Clara valleys, then skipping the San Fernando mountains to pick up again in Pasadena. Here the winter-ripening navel orange took precedence, extending in an almost unbroken line east through Arcadia, Monrovia, Azusa, Cucamonga, Glendora, Claremont, Upland, Pomona, Ontario, Colton, San Bernardino, and Redlands, and then spreading south to beyond Riverside—more than one hundred miles of orange trees. In the coastal plain, Valencias flourished again, creating an independent belt from Fullerton south through Anaheim, Orange, Santa Ana, Tustin, and San Juan Capistrano—another fifty miles of golden-globed trees. The orange had not merely found a home; it had conquered a territory.