Bad winter puts freeze on California etrog harvest

The past year's bad weather in California, including below-freezing temperatures last December and biting cold rains through February and March, is proving to be a windfall for a handful of Israelis.

Which Israelis? The etrog growers, of course.

That's because this year's etrog crop in California has failed.

"There will not be a harvest this year," said John Kirkpatrick, a San Joaquin Valley farmer recently tabbed "the only large-scale U.S. producer of the etrog" by the Wall Street Journal.

Sukkot, the holiday that creates the demand for etrogim, begins today at sunset.

The bulk of Kirkpatrick's orchards 40 miles south of Fresno — 35 acres of lemons and tangelos — managed to survive temperatures that fell as low as 23 degrees last December. But his two acres of etrogim, about 250 trees, stand blackened and dead in the field.

"Of all the citrus fruits, the etrog is the most susceptible to injury from frost," explained Kirkpatrick, a 68-year-old, church-going Presbyterian from the small agricultural community of Exeter.

Because of religious prohibitions, etrog trees may not be grafted onto hardier roots when grown outside Israel, leaving them vulnerable to the slightest atmospheric alteration.

"We have exactly one fruit out there on the trees," Kirkpatrick said. "It's a total failure."

The etrog, or citron, as it is known in English, is one of the four species held together and shaken in the six directions during Sukkot, the Festival of Booths.

Most observant Jewish families buy their own etrog every year during the period between Rosh Hashanah and the first night of Sukkot.

Looking like a large, bumpy lemon, an etrog must be virtually free of imperfection in order to satisfy the stringent requirements of the Sukkot ritual. It's a point of pride as well as religious commandment to buy the finest fruit one can afford.

Most citrons sold in the United States are imported from Israel or other Mediterranean countries. While many sell in the $10 to $15 range, a beautiful fruit can fetch more than $70.

Kirkpatrick didn't know much about Sukkot or etrogim in 1980, when he received — out of the blue — a phone call from Yisroel Weisberger, a young Orthodox Jew from New York.

Weisberger had a plan, and he needed Kirkpatrick's help. He wanted to start a large-scale citron-growing operation domestically, and sell better fruit for less money in New York.

"My brother-in-law [Weisberger] had the idea that he's going to grow etrogim in California, and he's going to become a millionaire because he's going to undercut the entire industry," explained Ya'acov Rothberg, executive director of Yeshiva Ohr Hameir in Peekskill, N.Y.

"He thought, why pay $50 for an etrog from Israel if he can get an etrog for $30 from California? But he didn't know how much goes into the growing of etrogim, how difficult it is."

Weisberger persuaded Kirkpatrick to devote some of his land to growing the fruit on a trial basis.

It didn't take much doing. Kirkpatrick, for his part, was intrigued by the notion of growing fruit that could command such high prices on the New York market. Weisberger flew to Israel and brought back rabbinically blessed etrog seeds. Kirkpatrick planted them and the wait began.

"They didn't produce much for the first 13 or 14 years," Rothberg said. "Growing citrons is very different from growing oranges or lemons. There are lots of details, and no way John could have known them without being taught."

Eventually, Rothberg brought in an Israeli consultant, Jerusalem citron grower Ya'acov Zaks, who overhauled Kirkpatrick's growing technique, teaching him the latest Israeli methods.

The crop improved dramatically, said Rothberg, who travels to the San Joaquin Valley about six times a year from his home in New Jersey to check up on Kirkpatrick's fields.

"Growing citrons is an art," Rothberg noted. "It took time, but our fruit became the quality that people liked. It got better and better."

Although Kirkpatrick's trees usually yield upwards of 100,000 citrons a season, the less-than-perfect fruits are pruned back, and only about 12,000 are left to ripen on the branches.

In the late summer, Rothberg comes to California to inspect the fruit. Only the best — usually between 2,000 and 4,000 a year — are harvested and sent back east.

Prices vary widely, Rothberg said. A "small percentage" command high-end prices that "average $65," he reported, "but there are $10 pieces, $15 pieces, and so on."

Why would observant Jews in New York want to buy an etrog from a Presbyterian farmer in California? Because of the particular species Kirkpatrick grows, Rothberg explained.

"He grows a Kiviletz etrog, which is almost extinct now, even in Israel," he said.

"This variety has the integrity of being used by people for more than 100 years. There are still people who only want this particular kind."

For Kirkpatrick and his wife, Shirley, their foray into the citron business has brought them into contact with an entire world they knew nothing about.

Yiddish terms now roll off John's tongue, and he is well-versed not only in the arcane rules regarding etrogim but details of Chassidic life and practice.

He took his first trip to Israel last year, visiting Zaks' citron operation outside Jerusalem, as well as the religious sites in Jerusalem and Galilee.

Although his crop this year is a no-show, Kirkpatrick still has hope for next year.

Only the youngest trees were destroyed right down to the ground, Kirkpatrick said. The others may spring back to life, but it's a painstaking process.

"We had a similar freeze in 1990, and it took us three years to recover," he noted.

In order to keep their clientele through this devastating season, Rothberg flew to Israel in early September to purchase etrogim for their steady customers in New York. "It will give us some income, and will help hold our place in the market," he explained.

And next year?

"We'll have a crop next year, God willing," said Kirkpatrick, throwing in the typical Jewish caveat as if it were second-nature. "We need all the help we can get."

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.