Partnership keeping small producers growing

Citrus star credits Thrifty Foods with helping to keep his farm in the black

Lael Popham was thrilled to meet Lisle Babcock

Lael Popham was thrilled to meet Lisle Babcock

He’s not as famous as the Jolly Green Giant and his valley of green peas, but Lisle Babcock could be considered the star of citrus fruits in this neck of the woods, judging by how many people turned out to meet the farmer at Thrifty Foods in Parksville on Saturday afternoon.

Babcock is the driving force of Buck Brand Citrus from Terra Bella in California’s San Joaquin Valley and his success story is due in part to Thrifty Foods.

Babcock, who grew up on his family’s citrus orchard, always grew oranges the old fashioned way to get the best flavour.  About 15 years ago the Vancouver Island grocer discovered Babcock’s citrus products. In the mid-1990s the citrus industry economics of the day had made it increasingly difficult for individual farmers and their families to earn a living through the sale of their citrus crops. Large fruit wholesalers banded together, which lowered prices to the point where the viability of independent citrus fruit farmers was brought into question.

Babcock said that at a time when citrus farmers were struggling, Thrifty Foods started doing business with him. He said they had been working together for a year when their business was on the brink of folding but Michael Mockler, director of produce operations for the grocery chain, wasn’t about to let that happen.

“I called Mike and said I need more money because $8 a box doesn’t make a farmer anything. He said how much do you need?  I said we need $4 more dollars and he said no, I am going to double your price to $16. That is never done in the industry. Mike said ‘we are making a lot of money and you are going to get some of what we make,’” Babcock said, getting a bit teary eyed as he recalled the story.

He said Thrifty Foods has gotten word out about the Buck Brand over the last four years and now he turns down literally one buyer a week.

“Thrifty’s saved our farm, and other farms,” he admitted.

Dave Wishlow, produce manager at Parksville’s Thrifty Foods said Babcock’s product is in demand.

“People are constantly asking when his oranges will arrive,” said Wishlow.

Babcock, known for his cowboy hat, boots and checkered shirt, was happy to talk citrus to anyone who asked Saturday afternoon.  With his Buck knife on his belt to cut up samples, he said Buck Brand is one of a kind and stands behind everything. The picking date and phone number is on every box he sends.

Hand-picked when ripe and only when ordered, each piece of fruit is brushed with a horsehair brush to concentrate its flavor. Babcock said brushing an orange with a horsehair brush is a traditional method that allows the fruit to breathe naturally.

“That’s the way it has always been done. Putting wax on fruit will make it keep longer but it will clog its pores.”

Babcock and his wife Mary Lou have been visiting different Thrifty Foods locations, sharing their wealth of citrus fruit knowledge. Babcock said his favorite is the Chaddock variety, but he admitted he has over 65 varieties to choose from.

The Palestine sweet lime is a lime varietal which is extremely low in acid and is one that Babcock can’t say enough good things about. The name sweet lime is actually a bit of a misnomer, because the Palestine sweet lime doesn’t really have any flavour at all, let alone sweetness.

The fruit is native to India where it’s used medicinally to allay upset stomachs, nausea, and throat infections. Babcock said he provides the fruit free to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. He said anyone who is suffering the side effects of the cancer treatment can either contact him or Thrifty Foods to get a free box of the fruit.

Currently, Thrifty Foods is donating $1 for every four-pound bag of Buck Brand navel oranges sold between Feb. 15 and March 13 to seven hospital foundations.

Those foundations are on the Island and another six are on on the Lower Mainland. Babcock said he is honoured to be part of that campaign.

“We are humbly proud to take part in the campaign because it gives us a chance to give back to the community that has helped us become successful.”

Babcock’s citrus fruit is grown in and around the small town of Terra Bella, California — literally meaning “The Good Earth”.  Two hundred and twenty-two acres of the 260 acre farm are planted and he works with about 48 other people.  Babcock said in about a month the trees will be blossoming and the smell is heavenly.

“I live about half a mile from the ranch. I grew up there. In the latter part of March when trees are in bloom … that is one beautiful time to come out to the ranch.”


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