THE BLOG
08/30/2012 10:51 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

Lemons Are My Passion, and Our Trees Are in Peril!

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When I first moved to California, I marveled at the fact that I had a lemon tree in my backyard. Being a New York boy, I was not used to walking out to my yard and picking a handful of citrus fruit for breakfast. As a sometime chef, I consider lemons the prime secret ingredient making most dishes sing-and-zing with flavor. A sprinkle of lemon juice enhances almost every dish. So I was intrigued when my friend, P.R. woman Ann Flower, told me that she is representing a Santa Paula-based company called Limoneira, which is the largest grower of lemons and avocados in the country. Foe 119 years they have been growing lemons, and now have some 7,000 acres in agricultural development around the state as the largest provider of lemons and avocados in the country. Their President/CEO, Harold Edwards, told me that they were founded in 1893 in Ventura County, and that the citrus industry in California is now a $2 billion business.

But it is the world of lemons which really intrigues me. With 1,870 acres of lemons in bloom around the state, they are in a position to tell me some of the inside details of it. Harold noted that in the 1940s, Limoneira developed the Limco 8A, a new lemon variety which proved more resistant to disease, yielded more fruit, of high quality with a longer shelf life. This variety remains one of the standard bearers for lemon production around the world. He invited me to visit their demonstration orchard in Santa Paula, where they have over 300 varieties of citrus fruits growing. "We partner with the University of California's Agriculture and Natural Resource Program to stay current," he said. "We are on the cutting edge of research and development, to keep up with new trends and problems in this industry."

A recent article in the New York Times told about a threat to California's citrus industry which may finish backyard citrus trees which are present in about 70 percent of homes in the state. Lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit trees are in danger from an Asian disease called 'citrus greening.' The commercial industry can combat it with sprays and such, but homeowners could lose their trees to the insidious disease carried by a tiny winged insect. The article quotes Steve Kyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, who discussed residential urban citrus growth in the state. "This is part of California's heritage, part of the California experience. People have citrus on their properties, and they feel passionately about it. The risk to that is significant." Companies like Limoneira are fighting the disease with a $50 million research program to find a cure for the tree-damaging disease, which has devastated Florida's citrus industry.

My particular citrus passion is for a variety called Meyer lemons. Native to China, it is thought to be a cross between a true lemon and a mandarin or common orange. A fellow named Meyer from the U.S. Dept. of Agricuture spotted it in China and brought a sample here in 1908. According to Wikipedia, it became popular for cooking after Chez Panisse's Alice Water and Martha Stewart began using it in recipes. I think it is more yellow and rounder than a true lemon, while I find it has a sweeter, less acidic flavor than the supermarket variety. Today, it can be found in many a gourmet market, and I strongly recommend using it for any recipe calling for lemons. And your kitchen will smell heavenly, for it emits a strong lovely odor. (Thank you, Mr. Meyer.)

I'll end my tribute to the lovely lemon with a few notes from a fellow named John Chamberlain, who is the marketing director for Limoneira. He tells me that they are getting deeply involved in promoting lemons for other, non-culinary uses. "Beauty, health, lifestyle and cleaning are other uses for these lovely orbs," he said. "Our new campaign, which we call 'Unleash the Natural Power of Lemons,' highlights the fruit's use in household and personal care. Women can use lemons to create blonde highlights in the hair. And you can put half a lemon in your refrigerator to eliminate all odors there. I use half a lemon as a candle-holder on my table. We aim to do for our lemons what Arm & Hammer did for baking soda.We tell people that lemon juice is the strongest cleaning acid in their kitchens, and it kills most bacteria."

I didn't tell him that I had a pedicure last night at a Korean manicure-pedicure place on Main Street in Venice... and the woman put several lemon slices into the warm water for my feet. They smell heavenly!

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