Joe Schafer has spent the majority of his winters riding out the cold in Nebraska, and if you told him he was destined to become a California citrus farmer, even just ten years ago, he wouldn’t have believed you. But, shortly after he and his long-time friend, Gretchen Zwetzig, celebrated their fortieth birthdays, they decided the time to move their flower business to a warmer climate was now or never.
After searching far and wide, they packed their bags, and with friend and associate Kerry Cooper, left the Midwest and moved their business to the Golden State. The 110-year-old orchard of organic Washington navel oranges on their new property sweetened the deal.
“We’d never really seen an orange grove until we started looking at buying land in California,” Joe remembered, “We had to learn how to farm it, it was a crash course. Every year has been a learning experience.”
They certified the orchard and gladly adopted an organic growing program, since the ranch is also their home. Joe brought 25 years of experience in landscaping with him, and his green thumb and horticultural background was a good base to build on. Even still, he had to learn methods to deal with California’s pests, fruit sizing systems, and citrus tree and soil care. After all that investment of time and energy, the first harvest’s tree-ripened fruit was a true reward.
“We were all pretty excited,” Joe said about their first opportunity to taste the oranges, seven months into living and working on the farm. “You get in there and you start eating two or three of them at a time, it’s like you just can’t quite stop. We take them down to the guys at the hardware store, the guys at the post office, and they all get free citrus from a lot of people, but they’ve always said these oranges are outstanding. We’re proud of that.”
Joe, Gretchen and Kerry work together to put their best foot forward, and actively seek out advice from neighbors in order to make the decisions that will be best for the farm. It’s a joint effort, and Joe even shares the credit for the good fruit with the farm itself.
“We got lucky, we’re in a good patch of land here. I’ve played in dirt my whole life, and you could sell dirt like that, it’s all river bottom,” Joe said about their soil.
The trees stand like monuments of agricultural history, and they have a lot to give too. “These trees have been good to us. They’ve been good to a lot of people, they’re good, strong trees and as long as we have ample water, these 110-year-old trees just keep producing fabulous fruit.”
And it’s a good thing he left those long, cold winters behind, because when he’s not propagating flowers in the greenhouse for the business, or working in the orange grove, Joe likes spending time in his garden.