Photo courtesy of Cal State University, Northridge

The San Fernando Valley’s Vanishing Orange Groves

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The potential sale of the Bothwell Ranch has galvanized community members to save the property — meanwhile, the groves at CSUN and Orcutt Ranch are keeping the Valley’s orange-growing roots alive.

Rows of verdant Valencia and Navel orange trees line the grounds of the Bothwell Ranch estate, a 14-acre parcel of land nestled between the city boundaries of Woodland Hills and Tarzana. The 1,500 fragrant fruit trees represent the last of the commercial orange crops in the San Fernando Valley, a region that was once the center of Southern California’s “Orange Empire.” Now that legacy is up for sale.

In April, family members placed the property on the real estate market with the asking price of $13.9 million with plans to develop the land into 26 single-family homes. The move signals the loss of the Valley’s last commercial orchards and has galvanized community members to save the property — and its agricultural history along with it.

Lindley Bothwell, a prominent Southern California citrus grower who was also a founding member of the USC Trojan Knights, bought the ranch in the 1920s. When Bothwell died in 1986, his widow, Ann, assumed control of the orange grove until her death in 2016.

She told the Los Angeles Times in 1998 that it was important to keep the orchard running to impart “a sense of history” to her children and grandchildren. When her beloved orchard sells, only two notable orange groves will remain in the Valley — the mulch-lined groves on the campus of California State University, Northridge and a leafy canopy at Orcutt Ranch. Both non-commercial.

The orange grove at California State University, Northridge comprises nearly 400 orange trees, including remnants of the region’s original citrus crops. Photo courtesy of California State University, Northridge.

Should Bothwell Ranch sell, its purchase and development will herald the complete transformation of an area that a century ago dominated Southern California’s citrus production with 750,000 trees lining the Valley. Now only a handful of acres remain.

“I would say it’s impossible to exaggerate the impact that the orange had on the development of Califonia,” says David Boulé, author of “The Orange and the Dream of California.” “The orange was once the number two revenue generator in the state behind the oil.”

Orange crops migrated to California along with Franciscan monks in 1796 when the first groves were planted at the San Gabriel Mission. Nearly 50 years later, the first commercial groves began operation in downtown Los Angeles. The brightly colored fruit came to represent California as a place of plenty and personal opportunity. To survive the trip to consumers back east, oranges were individually wrapped in tissue paper and packed in orange crates decorated with California’s scenic landscapes.

“These beautifully crafted orange labels showed these exotic scenes of the really idealized California,” Boulé says. “They were very involved in promoting tourism to California as a dreamland and place of agricultural abundance where, if you could just get here, you could be successful.”

To visualize how much has changed since the county’s 20th-century citrus boom, Boulé cites a sobering statistic: In the 1950s, Los Angeles County was one of the top agricultural producers in the world. Today, it holds the distinction of being the most food-insecure area in the country with over 1.5 million people unable to afford sufficient amounts of food, according to the most recent data.

A duck picks at a fallen orange at CSUN’s five-acre citrus orchard. Photo by Alexis Garcia.

Directing food resources to those in need is one of the primary aims of CSUN’s five-acre citrus orchard. The campus is home to nearly 400 orange trees which include remnants of the region’s original citrus crops.

“The grove represents the history of the Valley,” says Austin Eriksson, sustainability program manager at CSUN. “I think it’s cool that we have one of the last orange groves on this side of the Valley. It’s a piece of history that we’re holding on to.”

Ducks mill about the orchard, taking up residence in the nearby turtle pond. A small duckling, which one groundskeeper has affectionately named Bumblebee, follows its mother through the maze of trees, picking at orange peel remnants that have fallen to the ground.

The university restored the grove in the mid-1990s with the help of Sunkist Growers, who donated more than 150 trees to replace those that were dead or dying. Eriksson says that a good chunk of the trees in the campus grove are over 70 years old and nearing the end of their natural life cycle. Most of the maintenance efforts are focused on replacing dying trees and making the grove as resource-efficient as possible.

“The grove represents the history of the Valley. I think it’s cool that we have one of the last orange groves on this side of the Valley. It’s a piece of history that we’re holding on to.”

Austin Eriksson, sustainability program manager at CSUN

CSUN engages the public’s help in keeping the grove up and running. The campus hosts the public two to four times a year to harvest fruit and often invites student organizations and non-profits. Administrators estimate that some 18,000 pounds of oranges are harvested every year. The harvest helps remove stress from the trees, promotes growth and provides fresh fruit for the community.

“The best way for the community to support the orange grove and get involved is through the free orange picks,” Eriksson says. “If it’s not picked it’s going to fall to the ground and not be used. The idea is to make sure the resources don’t go to waste.”

Six miles to the west of CSUN’s orchard sits the second remaining orange grove in the Valley on the grounds of Orcutt Ranch. The 24-acre property was once the vacation home of William Orcutt, one of California’s early oil pioneers who cemented his place in Los Angeles history with the discovery of prehistoric fossils at the La Brea Tar Pits. Orcutt, who also served as head of the Canoga Park Citrus Association, planted orange groves on the estate in the 1920s during the Valley’s citrus boom. The City of Los Angeles designated the property a historical landmark in 1965 and opened the area to residents four years later. Every July, the public is invited to the grounds to pick fruit from the six acres of orange trees that remain on the property.

Every July, residents are invited to the Orcutt Ranch orange grove to pick fruit from the six-acre orchard. Photo by Alexis Garcia.

While the groves at CSUN and Orcutt Ranch keep the Valley’s citrus historical roots alive, they are not commercially maintained. Eriksson says the decision to keep the groves open to the public stems mainly from the fact that the university does not have an agricultural program to support large-scale harvesting. Commercially producing oranges is also labor and resource-intensive; citrus trees have a long harvest period and often require considerable amounts of water, making it economically unfeasible for smaller orchard operations.

It’s a strange irony that the orange — a fruit so instrumental in Southern California’s expansion — is being evicted to make way for development intended to add supply to the region’s housing shortage.

But some Valley residents hope that the area’s agricultural history will present a solution. Community members have started an online petition to lobby the L.A. City Council, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Bothwell family to preserve the Bothwell orange grove. A day after the Los Angeles Daily News reported on the potential sale, City Councilman Bob Blumenfield introduced a motion to have the West Valley land designated as a cultural-historical monument.

“As a representative of our Valley community, it is my duty to help retain our Valley-identity,” Blumenfield remarked in a prepared statement. “That starts by holding onto our special landmarks like the Bothwell Ranch.”

Blumenfield’s motion puts a halt on any building permits until the city’s planning department can make a determination on its historical designation, though declaring the site a landmark wouldn’t entirely stop the development of the property.

Boulé says he hopes at least some portion of the Bothwell groves can be kept and turned into a museum.

“Bothwell Ranch represents this important part of Southern California and San Fernando Valley history,” Boulé says. “It can play a role in not only educating people about the past but also what the future of California might be.”

Los Angeleno