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American Futures

In Redlands, Calif., when life gives you oranges…

Kai Ryssdal Dec 20, 2013
American Futures

In Redlands, Calif., when life gives you oranges…

Kai Ryssdal Dec 20, 2013

Our next stop on our American Futures partnership with The Atlantic didn’t take us too far from Marketplace headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. 

Follow Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal and the Atlantic’s James Fallows as they tour Redlands Foothills Grove packing plant — the last orange packing house in town.

Redlands, Calif., is about an hour east of L.A. and also happens to be where James Fallows grew up. 

Redlands was at one point the navel orange growing capital of the world. Today, just a small fraction of the old groves remain – they’ve been plowed up and built over.

“The story people tell themselves here is how lucky they are to have all the fruits of the generation of people who’ve planted groves, who’ve built parks and so it’s up to them both to be aware of that and to make the investment for the next generation so they’ve got a kind of local patriotism we’ve found in a lot of other very different cities,” says Fallows about his hometown. 

Nowadays, the groves may be gone but that doesn’t mean the city can’t use oranges to help build its future. A future that can be found, funnily enough, in beer from the local brewery, Hangar 24

Founded by Ben Cook about five years ago, Hangar 24 is one of the fastest-growing craft breweries in the country and it’s widely known for its orange wheat beer. Cook says about 70 percent of their production is of the citrus-infused variety and most of the oranges he uses are grown about five miles from the brewery. 

In fact, Hangar 24 is one of Bob Knight’s biggest customers. Knight is a fourth-generation orange farmer in Redlands.

One of his groves borders the south side of town – 23 acres of densely-packed trees weighed down with fruit.      

Knight runs the family business but he does things differently than the way his father and grandfather did. Instead of selling into the global market – sending his oranges to the local Sunkist packing house to be boxed and sold around the world, Knight keeps his oranges close to home.

Besides Hangar 24, he also sells to school districts around Southern California. 

And while Knight recognizes the city doesn’t have the recognition in the orange business it used to, he’s not bothered.

“The orange industry, from the city of Redlands, from an economic or financial point of view is minute,” Knight says. “But from a heart-share point of view, it’s huge.”

The city of Redlands even owns orange groves – paid for by a voter-approved measure in the 1980s that was intended to help preserve about 200 acres of orange trees.

A vestige of the city’s booming citrus industry does remain – one last Sunkist packing house right in the heart of the city. It’s called Redlands Foothills Grove — run by a man named Manuel Martinez.

A photo of the last remaining packing house, Redlands Foothill Groves

Martinez says the orange business isn’t getting any easier. There aren’t enough local growers to keep the plant going so he’s had to bring oranges in from other regions – Bakersfield and Arizona – to survive. But this packing plant is how Redlands keeps a tiny finger in the global orange market. It boxes up oranges that end in grocery stores across the United States, in Hong Kong and even Japan.

The orange industry has changed but oranges are right at the heart of what Redlands is using to get people to live here. They brand the place with oranges – from the names of streets to street signs, murals around downtown and the city seal.

And while the city might not have a reputation that spans from coast to coast, the people that live in Redlands remain devoted to their heritage. 

How much do you know about this small town of Redlands? Take our quiz!

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