LoBue packing house legacy ends after 83 years
By Reggie Ellis
lindsay – The LoBue Bros.’ “Legacy of Excellence” in citrus will formally end later this year as the family will exit the packinghouse business after 83 years in Lindsay. The LoBue brothers of LoBue Bros. announced the sale of the business to M Park Inc. of Orange Cove during a dinner for its network of growers on Aug. 1. Philip LoBue, president of the company, said the business is currently in escrow and is expected to close in September. Philip said it was sad to see the end of an era in Lindsay but age and no willing heirs forced the LoBue brothers to sell while the business was still vibrant and before they were too old to run it effectively.
“All of the principals of the company are in their late 60s or mid-70s and there wasn’t enough of the next generation to step in and take over,” Philip said. “It is a sad change, but we are all past retirement age. This is something we had to do.”
Philip said M Park is owned by Alex and Daniel Kim, a father and son duo that focuses on exporting citrus to Asian markets, especially their native country of Korea. He said the new ownership has a very different marketing strategy than that of LoBue. Philip said Korea has surpassed Japan as the number one importer of citrus. He said Alex Kim lives and works in Korea and manages the import side while Daniel Kim manages M Park’s 30,000 square foot facility in Orange Cove and their more than 600 acres of citrus.
“They export about 60-70% of their volume and we only export about 40%,” LoBue said. “They have asked the growers to stay on but that will be up to them.”
The sale of the business encompasses about 1,000 acres of commercial citrus and the packinghouse and equipment, which packs about 2 million cartons of citrus per year, but will not include the LoBue name and not necessarily the employees. On July 19, LoBue Bros. notified its 98 employees that it was selling the plant as part of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. WARN notices issued by the Employment Development Department (EDD) provide employees with a 60-day notice prior to closure or mass layoff. Philip said M Park began interviewing employees this week to fill positions in the new company.
The LoBue Legacy
Like the Kims, the LoBues began as American emigrants as well. In 1934, an Italian immigrant named Phillip LoBue (Philip’s grandfather) made his first down payment on 40 acres of citrus in Lindsay, following in the footsteps of his ancestors who grew citrus on the shores of Sicily. After moving his family to the blossoming town, illness forced Phillip to turn the business over to his sons Mario (Philip’s father), Fred and Joe.
In 1938, after having been defrauded out of two crops, the young men bought some used packing equipment from Southern California and trucked it up to Lindsay. The LoBue brothers began packing their crops in a shed on the ranch. In the beginning, the entire citrus crop was sold in the San Francisco and San Jose produce markets, using contacts their father had developed over the years as a cherry farmer there. Friends and neighboring growers saw the LoBue brothers’ success, and asked them to pack and sell their oranges also. A growing enterprise was born. Just a boy then, Fred, now retired, remembered helping out on the family ranch.
By 1967, Sunkist controlled about 85% of the California citrus market. Pure Gold, LoBue Bros. and several other smaller operations shared the remaining 15%. LoBue Bros. stayed in business by dealing directly with grocery chains such as Safeway and Purity in California and Kroger on the East Coast. But as smaller grocery networks were bought out by bigger retail chains, neighborhood grocery stores were driven out of business.
LoBue Bros. was dealt a difficult blow in 1968 when its Lindsay plant burned down on December 14, less than a month after finishing a complete modernization project. But within a year, the company began operations at its present facility, reconstructed on the same site using the most up-to-date and efficient equipment available.
The recession, retail consolidation and two citrus freezes hit Lindsay hard in the 1990s. The Lindsay olive industry left town overnight, taking with it hundreds of jobs. A second major employer, General Cable, also closed its doors. Lindsay dropped to just 7 packinghouses and ancillary agriculture businesses such as Perma Rain irrigation company, box plants, farming supply companies, etc. disappeared. The void left by Lindsay Olives was filled by the LoBue Bros. label.
“I think we have been a longtime employment anchor for the city,” Philip said.
LoBues leave on top
Up until the sale is final, LoBue Bros., Inc. remains one of the largest independent commercial packer and marketer of oranges in the industry. As the company’s volume of business has grown, so has the market area served. When the brothers first started packing on the ranch, their entire harvest was sold in the San Francisco area. Today, fruit packed by LoBue Bros., Inc. reaches markets all over the United States, Canada, Pacific Rim, Australia-New Zealand, Europe, and other areas.
Danny Salinas, who has served on the Lindsay City Council for 15 years, said he hopes the new owners keep the business relatively unchanged. In addition to being one of the largest private employers left in town, Salinas said LoBue has always accommodated the city’s historic Orange Blossom Festival, which recently celebrated its 85th year.
“LoBue has been a staple in the community for 83 years and I am glad they are going to keep it going,” Salinas said. “We will work with the new owners as hard as we can to make that happen.”
Tulare County Agriculture Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita described the LoBue family as “decent, hard working people” who have been “pillars of the local citrus industry” ever since she arrived here in 1993. She said LoBue was known for working with small, to mid-size citrus growers in a market dominated by large-scale agribusiness. Philip said LoBue exclusively worked with growers located between Bakersfield and Fresno totaling about 3,500 acres.
“They will be sorely missed,” Kinoshita said.
Philip said he, his brother Robert and brother-in-law Ron all own private citrus orchards that they will continue to farm in retirement just as their family has done for generations.