BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Rimmed by hills and oil derricks, stretch miles of mandarin orange groves along the Maricopa Highway at the southwestern end of the San Joaquin Valley. These used to be cotton fields, but is now the epicenter of an agricultural boom that has turned mandarins into a rising star.
Since that expansion started in the late 1990s, California’s mandarin plantings have increased 10-fold, from 5,000 to 50,000 acres. The state now ships 92 percent of the nation’s mandarin crop, while Florida, troubled by citrus greening disease and obsolete varieties with seeds, has had its share drop to 8 percent, from 66 percent.
In the process, thanks to new offerings and skillful marketing, mandarins — popularly known as tangerines — have become very popular with American consumers. Mandarin consumption has doubled, to five pounds a year for every American, while orange sales have declined.
Native to China and northeastern India, mandarins are one of five original types of citrus (along with pummelos, citrons, kumquats and papedas) from which all others, like oranges and grapefruit, are derived. Until recently, because most mandarins were relatively small, delicate or full of seeds, they remained less cultivated than other citrus in the United States.
In the late 1990s, two companies with deep pockets and marketing savvy, Sun Pacific and Paramount Citrus (now Wonderful Citrus), gambled big with huge mandarin plantings on the Maricopa Highway, 25 miles southwest of Bakersfield, where they were isolated from other citrus whose pollen could make the fruit seedy.