November 4, 2015

Growing the Perfect Citrus Variety

CA Member

Tom Mulholland

Mulholland Citrus

Member Since 2001

Family Background: Many books have been written about William Mulholland, who is largely responsible for bringing water to parched Los Angeles County more than a century ago.  He was the head of a predecessor to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and responsible for building the city water infrastructure and providing a water supply that allowed the city to grow into one of the largest in the world.  Mulholland designed and supervised the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile-long system to move water from Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley.  Tom Mulholland is the fourth generation and the only male left in this lineage.


The Origins of Mulholland Citrus: Perry Mulholland was a son of William and the grandfather of Tom.  He started the Mulholland Orchard Company with about 400 acres in the San Fernando Valley in the 1930s, which is where his son Richard grew up and lived as a child.  When the urbanization of Los Angeles County edged into the ranch in the 1950s, Richard moved to Orange Cove where the land was cheap and the open space was huge.  “Dad’s vision has come true but the landscape changed with the nearly 100 percent coverage of all the properties,” said Tom, which was brought about by the Central Valley water project.

Richard Mulholland planted citrus groves and started a citrus nursery.  “At the age of 10, I started my own nursery in 4-H as the expansion of the Orange Cove area developed with all the farmers needing the new citrus trees.  Dad had his nursery where I learned how to germinate citrus seed.  Later my responsibilities spread to tractor and wind machine jobs.”

When he started college in the early ‘70s, Tom said he was a “hippie and no way was I going to return to the farm and do the hard work.”  He focused on the environmental issues and got a degree in Urban Planning.  But after college, he helped his father put in a drip irrigation system.  “This was the one time we worked side by side and installed pipelines and filters doing all the work ourselves.  Well, I never left.  His innovation by installing permanent drip irrigation was at the beginning of this farming revolution, displaying great respect to his generation of the Mulholland family.  He was the first to bring wind machines into the valley citrus industry.”

Tom Mulholland soon planted his own grove and has been germinating new citrus seed ever since.


An Expanding Citrus Industry: Tom remembered that “during the 1960s, scientists were really looking into the world of citrus with intent to understand disease, horticultural practices, i.e. rootstock choices and varietal selections.  Florida was always the juice citrus growing capital but California had the fresh fruit-growing climate.  Sweet oranges were the predominant choice such as Valencia and Washington navel.  Lemons were desirable and grew in some California climate zones while grapefruit was still a Florida fruit.”

By the early 1980s, Spain started its citrus expansion programs with mandarins from the newly-discovered clementine and perfected the culture, while California expanded its acreage of navels with newer varieties.


The Origin of the W. Murcott: Tom was very interested in the European and interested in finding a mandarin that could grow in California.  “At the time we only had a USDA selection called a minneola for the late season.  Dr. Bill Bitters, an important scientist at UC Riverside, brought Satsuma mandarin into California from Japan in the early ‘60s, which developed into a marginal market.”

But in the early 1980s, Tom recalls that Dr. Bitters made a citrus budwood exchange with Morocco.  The Afourer/W.Murcott happened to be one selection given to the U.S. without any restrictions.  The variety went through the Citrus Clonal Protection Program where it was “cleaned up” and placed in the foundation block in Lindcove.  “It was here that during an evaluation I saw the merit of the fruit and from then on developed it as quickly as possible.”


Mulholland’s Claim to Fame: Other major farming companies at that time pursued the early clementine and developed their brands around the navels, but Mulholland launched the “Delite” brand around the Afourer/W.Murcott, and launched the easy peel industry that was to follow.  “I continued to propagate, plant and ultimately introduced the fruit to the retail market,” he said.

At the same time, the Moroccan government patented the variety in Europe and got plant protection and received further protection in South Africia.  “They actually have a patent in the USA but due to the reason that I had already commercialized the variety it was and still has not been contested.”

The variety continued to be developed in California and it eventually became known as the Cutie by a couple of the world’s largest produce growers and marketers.  “Delite was first but stood out in a second position in relative terms,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said another plant breeder in Riverside used new technology to sterilize the Afourer/W.Murcott.  Through budwood radiation and subsequent fruit evaluation, a seedless selection was discovered.  The California Citrus Research Board released the new Tango variety to the industry, which Mulholland said is now the most propagated and used variety in new plantings.


Mulholland Citrus Today: Mulholland citrus continues to grow and be a leader in the areas of citrus selections, citrus propagation and orchard development.  “We have also been on the leading edge of citrus packing equipment and food safety procedures,” Tom said.  “The difficult areas are how to continue in the current environments of worker needs and balance with extreme water shortage situations along with land use and management practices to continue to be good stewards of the greatest growing grounds in the world.”

He revealed that Mulholland Citrus has been on the cutting edge of lower pesticide use “using the IPM models and general good sense.  We have been supplying the industry with Aphytis melinus for the past 30 years as a major beneficial insect in thwarting the California red scale problem.  Safe food is paramount from our orchards.”


Western Growers Connection: “Western Growers has proven to be an organization that takes on any legislative problem as it occurs.  Somehow people in government get notions from partly told truths and make drastic decisions.  We need an empowering body that will see the issue and at least create the time to bring all sources of information forward in order to make educated and reasonable rules or regulations.  The teamwork of WG is awesome in that they have brought in an intellectually sound and understanding body of people to operate in an informational world that is so much driven by sound bites.”


Agriculture’s Future: “Change is inevitable from water monitoring to nitrogen use to air quality to worker safety etc.  We have to accept this,” he said.  “There are balances that are now in extreme tensions and we can see the uses and misuses as time allows a few to determine the future of the masses.  Jared Diamond believes the overuse of the natural resources will be the demise of future generations and he has documented some examples.  We need to be sure Western Growers is a controlled example of a long-term solution and not a whim of current problems.  The people drawn to WG are the brightest and most forward thinking in the industry.  This is the greatest attribute to WG.  Used wisely, we can continue our agriculture and ‘sustain’ in a mesmerized way.”


The Company’s future: “Keeping the generations on track is not an expectation but a reward,” he said.  “Heather (his daughter) is here and will be the future of Mulholland Citrus as my term is adjusted.  She will have learned from one of the best citrus legacies but it is her option what will happen.”

Mulholland Citrus currently markets its navels through Sunkist and its mandarins through The Wonderful Company and its Halo brand.  “We must keep all options open and know that tomorrow will be different than today.  Mulholland will find the next new variety because that is what we do.  There will be more change to come…stay tuned.”