Donation will help south San Joaquin Valley keep packing fresh fruit

A photograph of citrus including mandarin oranges, navel oranges, blood oranges and lemons.
A photograph of citrus including mandarin oranges, navel oranges, blood oranges and lemons. Fresno Bee file

On Friday morning, in the dead of winter, I tasted fresh fruit as sweet as anything picked in summer.

It was a mandarin from the southern half of the San Joaquin Valley, which produces citrus at a time of year when most other fruit-growing regions are out of season. Consumers around the nation and beyond can enjoy the flavors and health benefits of oranges, grapefruit and their kin.

The winter bounty could keep flowing for years to come thanks in part to a donation of fruit-processing equipment to California State University, Fresno, by Bee Sweet Citrus, based in nearby Fowler.

Ag students will use the $600,000 packing line to learn how to clean, inspect, sort and pack up to 16 pieces of fruit per second from the 1,000-acre campus farm. Along with citrus, it will handle peaches and nectarines in winter and pomegranates in fall.

Fresno State has educated many of the farmers and food processors in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, but not in citrus. Our area is too frost-prone for these semitropical trees to produce much commercially, although they are common in backyards.

I learned a lot about the citrus belt as a farm reporter in Tulare County in the late 1990s. It is one of those rare places where farm laborers and packers can find plenty of work in summer and winter. The area does have devastating freezes – including one that put thousands of people out of work right before Christmas 1999 – but overall the industry has succeeded.

Mandarins are a big part of this recently, thanks to their easy peeling and lack of seeds. It rivals the banana when it comes to convenient lunchbox fare for schoolchildren.

The Fresno State donation was presented Wednesday in the Bee Sweet Citrus Laboratory at the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology. The equipment came from six manufacturers in the area. It was delivered and installed with forklifts provided by J.M. Equipment Co., based in Manteca.

John Holland: 209-578-2385