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The Juicy Story Behind Citrus and UC Riverside

by: Kathy Barton   (February 2000)

It is a scene that has become part of UCR legend.
Late one afternoon three days before Christmas in 1914, wild jubilation broke out on the streets of Riverside. Holiday shoppers danced. The steam whistle on the electric plant blew for 15 minutes. Mission Inn owner Frank Miller ordered the bells at the venerable hotel be rung continuously.

Riverside civic leader and citrus pioneer John Henry Reed, quoted in the following day’s Riverside Daily Press, called it “the most important day in the history of Riverside.”

The spontaneous celebration broke out over a stunning decision by the University of California Regents to retain the Citrus Experiment Station in Riverside, rather than moving it to the San Fernando Valley -- a then-emerging citrus belt with powerful lobbying interests related to development and construction of the aqueduct from the Owens Valley to the Los Angeles region.

Riverside boosters -- proud of the accomplishments of the Citrus Experiment Station established in 1907 at the base of Mount Rubidoux -- had beaten long odds in the political battle and civic pride was busting out all over.

Their faith in the University of California scientists who established the station 93 years ago in the heart of Southern California’s citrus-growing region would be amply rewarded.

Research conducted at the station on many occasions buttressed the economic development of the state’s citrus industry, which today accounts for the largest proportion of California’s fruit and vegetable production. And, the station -- now called the Citrus Research Center-Agricultural Experiment Station to reflect its expanded agenda -- continues to meet the evolving needs of the industry in addressing new pest and disease challenges and developing new varieties for overseas markets.

The station also served as the rootstock for a new University of California campus, opened in Riverside in 1954 and today enrolling 11,600 students. Those students are joined by nearly 500 faculty scholars who are creating new knowledge in the arts, humanities, social sciences, physical and biological sciences, and engineering. The university is still a source of pride for the community.

A modern-day celebration is in the works to reflect on UCR’s citrus heritage and accomplishments of the industry, as well as honor seminal figures whose work underpinned the state’s agricultural economy. “A Celebration of Citrus -- The Past, Present and Future at UCR: Character, Contributions and the Continuum” will bring together citrus growers, scientists and alumni of both the Citrus Experiment Station and UCR on the evening of Thursday, March 9.

The event will commemorate nearly a century of milestones in the improvement of citrus production -- a body of work that has made UCR a vital ingredient in the success of California's citrus industry. “(UCR) has been essentially what has kept the California citrus industry competitive nationally and worldwide,” said Ted Batkin, executive director of the Citrus Research Board. “The university has worked hand-in-hand with the industry for nearly a century in addressing technical problems facing the development of the industry. It is important nationally because it was the first academic institution to seriously address a lot of the plant disease problems facing citrus. And, on an international basis, it has been considered a center of excellence for training and teaching other academics worldwide.”

Among the early research milestones was the control of the citrophilus mealybug by a natural enemy, an advance that marked one of the Citrus Experiment Station’s first ventures into “biological control” as a non-chemical method of pest control. In 1946, station scientists Herbert John Webber and Leon D. Batchelor -- both of whom served as director of the station -- published “The Citrus Industry,” a two-volume work that came to be known as the bible of the industry. Also in the 1940s, station scientists solved the mystery of tristeza disease, which threatened to wipe out California’s citrus industry, and developed a new disease-resistant rootstock. Another biological control success was control of the woolly whitefly by parasites native to Chile and Mexico.

UCR’s influence upon the state’s citrus industry today can be seen in a variety of programs, including:

- The Citrus Variety Collection, established upon the station’s opening, now contains 868 varieties and serves as a repository to solve disease problems, improve commercial varieties and preserve valuable germplasm resources.

- The Citrus Clonal Protection Program, which safeguards the industry against the spread of disease by providing it with disease-free budwood and conducting disease testing for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

- An extensive program in citrus variety development and improvement, reflected in the most recent release, Gold Nugget, a sweet, seedless tangerine that follows the grapefruit varieties Oroblanco and Melogold.

Challenges remain, according to Batkin. The rapid growth in international trade and travel has opened new pathways for insect pests and plant diseases, a crisis that UCR’s Center for Exotic Pest Research has been established to combat. The center serves as a coordinating body for assessing the risk of exotic pests, detecting them early and rapidly deploying control and eradication measures.

“What we are all having to do is work together. The issue has become so critical that we no longer can ignore the need for coordination,” said Batkin, noting that up to 40 percent of California’s citrus crop is exported to foreign markets that may shut their doors if exotic pests are not kept in check.

“This (coordination) role in itself is perhaps more significant than setting up bench scientists to run experiments,” said Batkin.

Another way the campus is meeting the evolving needs of the industry is the development and improvement of mandarin oranges, an emerging export market for California citrus. Studies to breed and improve mandarin varieties as well as experiments to improve fruit quality, flowering, fruit set and plant nutrition represent one “very proactive role” the campus has taken to serve the industry, Batkin said.

Keeping ahead of the rapid growth of citrus production technology worldwide, anticipating new markets and new pest problems are among the challenges UCR scientists face as they look ahead to a second century of service to the citrus industry.

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