Drought forces Calif. ranch to convert to fruit

It’s expected that money earned from the new orchards will help pay for herd expansion once rain returns to the region

ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Rancho Guejito is the largest ranch of its kind in southern California, where cattle and horses have grazed for nearly 200 years.

Fruit and wine may be its salvation.

Located north of San Diego near the city of Escondido, the ranch sprawls over 23,000 acres that rise from 200 to 4,000 feet in elevation. Rocky hills, sandy patches and grasslands stretch out in every direction.

However, more than four years of drought has reduced the mainly black cow herd to 700 head.

The ranch’s decision makers have diversified into the citrus, grape and wine business as a way to rebuild to 2,000 head. Money earned from the orchards should help pay to expand the beef herd as moisture conditions improve, said chief operations officer Hank Rupp, who has been with the ranch since 1987.

There has been pressure over the years to develop the ranch for hotels, housing or recreation, but the intention at this point is to maintain the property as an agricultural enterprise.

“It is the largest agricultural operation in the San Diego County,” Rupp told a tour from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association convention.

“Many areas of the ranch look much like it did probably 2,000 years ago. This ranch has not been developed very much at all.”

However, well planned orchards in high density plantings are a growing enterprise. The trees are spaced 10 feet apart rather than 20 feet the way they are in traditional citrus orchards. This results in 432 trees per acre. The trees are pruned to grow no taller than eight feet to encourage fruit production and make picking easier.

The ranch has 110 acres of oranges, tangerines, lemons and grapefruit and another 75 acres of organic avocados. The plan is to add another 300 acres.

Irrigation water comes from wells that the ranch controls. The water costs $300 per acre foot as opposed to receiving water from the county at a cost of $2,500 per acre foot. This covers the cost of delivery rather than the price of water.

The warm Mediterranean climate allows the lemon orchard to yield four to five crops per year. Half the citrus crop goes into the domestic market and the rest is shipped to Pacific Rim countries. The avocados are picked year round and are destined for local production as well as to Canada.

The ranch has a unique history.

The Catholic church controlled the original property when California was still part of Mexico.

“This ranch was used by the padres to graze their cattle and horses long before anyone ever thought about ranching,” said Rupp.

In 1845, the Mexican government decided to nationalize the land held by church missions and give portions to loyal supporters. This ranch was 13,000 acres, or 53 sq. kilometers.

It was known as the California land grants system, or the rancho system. The owners were known as dons.

The land has passed through nine owners, and more acres were added. The state considered turning it into a park in the early 1970s, but instead sold it to industrialist Benjamin Coates for $10 million. The land was fenced off and remains a private entity.

After Coates died in 2004, ownership of the land passed to the Rodney Company, headed by Coates’s daughter, Theodate Coates. She has said she is not interested in development at this time.

Contact barbara.duckworth@producer.com

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