It’s sad but true: Lemons are taken for granted in southern California. We grow them in our backyards or have access to them practically year-round at grocery stores and farmers markets. We celebrate the avocado and the orange and strawberry with festivals and myriad recipes, while the lemon sits in our kitchens, loyal and versatile, only noticed when we run out or realize they have gone up to a dollar apiece and we are being scandalously ripped off.
This summer, I discovered a place where the lemon gets its due. Limoneira Ranch in Santa Paula is one of the oldest working lemon ranches in the country. Its citrus groves stretch across 1,800 acres on ocean-kissed hillsides a few miles east of the Ventura coast. Avocados are also a major crop.
Started as a citrus co-op that pre-dated Sunkist, Limoneira has added real estate and beauty and bath products to its coffers, yet its ranch still takes you back to old California. The wood-shingled packinghouse dates to the early 1900s and boasts a factory line with workers who hand-sort the lemons (in I Love Lucy-style hairnets) before they are packed up and trucked to Philadelphia, Dallas, and other places with a sad lack of citrus-friendly features.
Anyone may take a tour of Limoneira for $20 ($10 for seniors). It’s not exactly a bargain, but it’s a rare opportunity to see what happens to lemons between picking and being loaded onto supermarket-bound trucks, and it includes stops at a solar-powered orchard (home to 5,000 photovoltaic solar panels and a collection of miniature English sheep who keep the weeds at bay) and the visitors center, which doubles as a museum with fantastic displays of 1920s-era fruit crate art. Best of all, you get a small bag of near-flawless lemons and avocadoes to take home. For some reason, the ranch also has what just may be the most scenic bocce courts you will find anywhere. Bocce tournaments are held some weekends, but the ranch also encourages pickup games if the courts are open (just call ahead to make sure a wedding party isn’t in the middle of a photo opp).
When you’ve lived in L.A. awhile, it can be challenging to find a place that’s both new and engaging enough to be worth the drive. Here’s a truly unique destination that manages to showcase the area’s rural beauty and history. Long live the lemon.