How Citrus Became a Top Crop in the Coachella Valley

The area’s earliest settlers arrived to till the land and support their families for generations to come.

September 21, 2023
Story by Elina Shatkin
Citrus is among the Coachella Valley’s most valuable crop exports, behind dates, grapes, and bell peppers.
PHOTOGRAPHY VIA GETTY

“My brother used to joke, ‘Why would I go to Vegas? I gamble every day at work,’ ” George Tudor says. “That’s what farming is, especially when you farm a permanent crop.”

As the president of Tudor Ranch, a third-generation family farm located in Mecca, he grows mostly table grapes along with 340 acres of lemons and 160 acres of medjool dates. None of it is easy.

“Farming is something where you certainly hope to make money every year, but you don’t expect it. There’s too much of the unknown, year in and year out,” he says. “At the same time, it’s rewarding to work outdoors, to work with people. I have employees that have worked with my family for 30 to 40 years. And when you see your product on a store shelf, there is a sense of pride there. There’s no denying that.”

Between the swimming pools, golf courses, restaurants, hotels, hot springs, music festivals, and relentless sun-soaked days, it’s easy to forget that the Coachella Valley’s boom was built, in large part, on agriculture. The region’s modern heritage is bound together with the personal histories of the homesteading families that settled here when land was cheap and plentiful.

Their stories are unique in the particulars but woven together by broad themes. Perhaps what’s most impressive is that these businesses have remained profitable, decade after decade, in a rollercoaster of an industry. Not everyone has been so lucky. But these farming families laid the ground, literally and metaphorically, so the valley could become an agricultural powerhouse.

THE EVENT THAT KICKED off Southern California’s citrus industry has its roots almost 6,000 miles away, in Bahia, Brazil. That’s where Francis J.C. Schneider, a German pastor living in the United States, decided to set up a Presbyterian ministry in the late 1860s. He’d heard stories that a sour orange tree on a nearby farm had sprouted a single branch growing a strange fruit — a sweet, seedless orange with a second, smaller orange inside, resulting in a protuberance that looked like a bellybutton. After tasting it for himself, Schneider made a cutting, propagated a dozen small trees, and sent them to Washington, D.C.

An orange ripe for the picking.

There, William O. Saunders, the superintendent of garden and grounds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, budded Bahia orange trees onto existing citrus stock, growing several small navel orange trees. In 1873, Saunders received a letter from his former Washington, D.C., neighbor, Eliza Tibbets, who had moved west with her husband, Luther, to the new Riverside Colony. Hoping this subtropical fruit would adapt, she asked Saunders to send her a few starter trees. He obliged, NPR reports, shipping Eliza a few branch cuttings.

The Tibbetses, however, weren’t fruit farmers. According to the Citrus Label Society, they turned to their neighbors, George Garcelon, Josiah Cover, and Samuel McCoy, who owned a nearby fruit farm and nursery. The horticulturalists planted and tended to the trees. When the trees flowered, they budded them onto mature orange trees from their own orchard. It soon became clear that the navel orange was equally suited to farmland in the Coachella Valley, about 70 miles away.

When Tibbets presented the fruit at a Riverside citrus fair, it made a splash. Locals began calling it the Riverside navel orange. By the late 1880s, officials had renamed it the Washington navel. Although it no longer had Riverside in its name, this fruit kicked the nearby Coachella Valley’s nascent citrus industry into high gear, forever altering the trajectory of the region.

Head to the southwest corner of Arlington and Magnolia avenues in Riverside, and you can still see the 150-year-old parent Washington navel orange tree grown by Eliza and her neighbors. Designated a California Historic Landmark in 1932, it now exists inside a dome to protect it from insects. It’s remarkable to think that every navel orange grown and eaten in California descends from this tree.

“It’s rewarding to work outdoors, to work with people … and when you see your product on a store shelf, there is a sense of pride there.”

BY THE EARLY 1900s, the Coachella Valley had started to take shape as the watering holes and rest stops that had sprouted alongside the train tracks bloomed into full-fledged communities. Indio, located halfway between Los Angeles and Yuma, Arizona, was the largest settlement in the area. It cropped up as a stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad and grew into a small but bustling village. In 1903, Bernard Johnson planted the first privately owned commercial date palms near Mecca. (The USDA planted date palms in the region in 1890 and, in 1907, opened the Indio Date Station to research the fruit and help farmers cultivate it.) The climate also agreed with lemons, oranges, grapes, and other produce. Railroad extensions blessed California growers with new markets where they could ship their goods.

Whether people were attracted to the region for its wide-open spaces, the promise of economic opportunity, or the chance to rewrite their destinies, amenities popped up to meet their needs — hotels, schools, hospitals, stores. By the time World War II ended, the Coachella Valley was home to approximately 50,000 people.

“When I moved out here to the valley, there was space between all the townships,” says Brian Specht, 69, who has been farming in the desert continuously for just over 50 years. “Between Indio and La Quinta and Palm Desert and Palm Springs, there was still open ground, and slowly, it all filled in.”

In 1956, when Specht was 2 years old, his father, a parts manager for Buick, bought some land through the Homestead Act. “My dad was second on the list,” he recalls. “But the first guy had to drop out, so he had his choice of any of the parcels that were available here.”

His father chose the smallest plot, 40 acres in the Oasis area, and developed 10 of them. “They planned on moving out to the farm when it started supporting itself, but the return on the citrus wasn’t enough to support us,” Specht recalls. “So my dad kept his job there in Inglewood, and we came back and forth on the weekends.”

His parents initially grew white grapefruit, then planted a few acres of tangerines. When that didn’t pan out, they planted the rest of the farm with pink grapefruit. After graduating from high school in Inglewood, Specht moved to the Coachella Valley and began taking care of the family farm. In 1990, he shifted to lemons, buying his seedlings from Young’s Nursery (now Gless Ranch Nursery) in Thermal, where he has worked for decades to ensure he maintains a steady income, especially in lean years.

After working full-time, five days a week at Gless, he returns to his 40-acre plot, where he grows 20 acres of Lisbon lemons and 20 acres of barhi and medjool dates.

An orange grove in California.

To one degree or another, all of the Coachella Valley’s citrus pioneers grew up as farm kids, helping out on their family’s ranches after school and during breaks. They chased away gophers, picked up trash behind crews, loaded dates, fed pigs, cleaned port-a-potties, drove the tractor for repair crews, and brought sandwiches to workers in the field.

“It was just a normal life, but it was very rural,” says Robin Young, whose family founded Young’s Nursery in 1954. She now works as an art teacher and librarian at Sacred Heart School in Palm Desert. “This is what a lot of kids [these days] don’t get to experience. A lot of our students don’t know where food comes from. It’s a whole different world, a different time.”

The nature of the crops has also changed. The area once boasted a wealth of grapefruit trees. But in the ’90s, as doctors began prescribing more statins to lower cholesterol, they advised their patients to avoid grapefruit. These days, the Coachella Valley grows very little grapefruit. In other cases, certain once popular citrus varieties, like Algerian and Dancy tangerines, have plummeted in popularity due to the rise of seedless varieties. But changing varieties isn’t easy for farmers.

“You try and guess what the future would be for a certain variety. By the time you eradicate the old trees, get the ground ready, plant new trees, and wait until you get a crop — [it takes] from five to seven years before you get your first crop — by then, the market could have changed, so that variety is no longer popular,” says Ted Fish, a fifth-generation farmer who tills land in Thermal. “It’s a roll of the dice.”

Citrus trees with a palm tree backdrop.
With all those risks, it’s remarkable that anyone still wants to farm. Fish loved growing up the way he did, but he doesn’t romanticize the work — and he’s not upset that his kids haven’t followed in his footsteps. “They enjoyed the benefits of family working together, being together. But summers are extremely difficult on the body. It’s hard physical work, and it’s long hours. They saw both sides of it, and they chose to get a different type of education, so they didn’t have to work as hard.”

Tudor is also philosophical about the future. “The tale of generational farming is that at some point, one generation says, ‘I’m done, and there’s nobody behind me.’ You could look at it as an opportunity for farmers, too. You can’t do it forever. You sell out, and you make money, and everybody’s happy, or you continue to farm and have this legacy of a family business; but that gets harder and harder as the generations go and go. That’s not unique to the Coachella Valley. That’s farming in the United States.”