Deep in central California, tucked away in the foothills near Sequoia National Park, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, you will find the Kirkpatricks, the unlikely growers of the largest (and possibly only) commercial etrog farm in the United States.
If that name doesn’t sound remotely Jewish, that’s because it isn’t. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find any Jews in this part of the state, well, except for the Kirkpatricks’ marketing partner, Yaakov Rothberg, who flies in seven to 10 times a year to check on his crop.
So how on earth did a non-Jewish farmer from Central California come to be the largest etrog grower in the United States?
Back in 1980, out of the blue, John Kirkpatrick received a call from a young yeshiva student by the name of Yisroel Weisberger, who was trying to find someone who would be willing to try and grow etrogim.
At the time of this fateful call, Weisberger was working for someone who imported etrogim. When etrogim arrived in the United States, USDA agricultural inspectors were required to inspect all the fruit for possible import of pests. That meant that each and every single etrog had to be unwrapped from the flax used to cover and protect it, and then be handled for inspection. Because inspectors typically were unaware of the significance of the etrog as far as Sukkot was concerned, there was always the fear that during an inspection, the fruit would not be handled with the appropriate care and respect and the pitom would subsequently break off. So Weisberger and a group of people were on hand at customs carefully holding and handling the etrogim so that the inspectors could conduct their inspections without touching the fruit and possibly making them pasul.
But that was not Weisberger’s only job. He had also been working part-time for a Judiaca store in Brooklyn when he came up with the idea of trying to find someone to grow etrogim domestically. Growing etrogim domestically could not only help avoid the arduous and time-consuming customs process but could even help defray the cost of the etrogim.
As a third-generation citrus grower, Kirkpatrick admits when he first spoke with Weisberger he had only seen a brief description of citrons in a book. Citrons have never been commercially viable for farmers for a number of reasons, so naturally he asked Weisberger why on earth he would want to grow this notoriously difficult crop. He then explained the significance of the fruit and its connection to the Jewish people and the holiday of Sukkot. After speaking for about an hour, the two men began what would become a 40-year partnership that continues to this day, albeit with a few minor changes.
They began by importing seeds under rabbinical authority from selected trees in Bnei Brak to be planted at Kirkpatrick’s farm, Lindcove Ranch. Planted under hashgacha from the original stock, they made selections from the trees that they thought produced the best fruit. At one point they even brought in a consultant from Israel who guided the Kirkpatricks in cultural practices, propagation, etc. All the halachos surrounding orla were observed and the trees slowly, stubbornly began to bear fruit. “It takes special skills to really grow satisfactory ones,” the farmer said.
It took many years and lots of trial and error. But, Kirkpatrick recalled, the first year of serious marketing for this endeavor occurred during a shemitah year. Weisberger’s brother-in-law Yaakov Rothberg was also selling etrogim, but his were imported from Israel. “I was selling around 70, 80 to 100 each year from Israel. And then when shemitah came I could not sell from Israel anymore, and my brother-in-law asked me to sell his,” said Rothberg.
This project, which began with just 52 trees—a fraction of an acre—has grown to six or seven acres with several varieties of etrogim. “We have four selections of Chazon Ish, Halperin, Kivelevitz and Teimani (Yemenite),” Kirkpatrick explained.
Today, Rothberg runs the business that his brother-in-law began. As the largest supplier of domestic etrogim, he regularly travels out to Lindcove Ranch. They employ a Rav Ha’Machshir, Rabbi Avrohom Teichman of Kehillas Kashrus. “He makes sure that when the trees are planted he knows exactly where we are getting them from and which variety is planted where,” said Rothberg. “He has a map to make sure nothing gets mixed, and he also makes sure that we keep arla for the first three years of growth and that there is no grafting going on.” Rothberg also spends a few weeks out in California to grade out the etrogim, make sure that the wholesale orders are done correctly and that they don’t send out any pasul etrogim.
Besides selling the etrogim from his own business in Lakewood, New Jersey, aptly called Esrogei Rothberg Mi’California, he also sells the Lindcove Ranch etrogim all over the United States, from Los Angeles to New York, and everywhere in between.
As for Kirkpatrick, who not only knows an astonishing amount of halacha about etrogim but also has a fairly impressive Yiddish vocabulary, he doesn’t think his arrangement with his strictly observant Jewish partners is all that unusual. He explained how farmers all over have been asked to grow wheat for matzo and even dates and lamb for use in Jewish observance. In fact, Kirkpatrick spoke of a farmer in the Coachella Valley—yeah, the one famous for the music and arts festival—who popularized a marketing arrangement for the production of the Deri lulavs—a variety of lulav noted for its exceptional quality—and ultimately became quite popular in Israel and other parts of the world.
But if you’re thinking you might want to pursue a career in etrog farming, take heed. “I can tell you if you want to do it, you can go broke in this business,” Kirkpatrick cautioned. While there are many successful growers in Israel, a few in Morocco and some in other parts of the Mediterranean, it is a notoriously difficult crop to grow and is not especially suited for commercial growing.
“It is so intense that if I had known what I was getting into at the time, I would not have done it. But we took one step at a time, from growing fruit that was hardly acceptable to getting better at it, until now I think you would have to say that we are a competitive force in the existing market.”
By Ronit Mershon