MESA, Ariz. (AP) -- One of the last citrus processing plants in the Phoenix metropolitan area is closing its Mesa facility after operating since the 1930s, and the future of the remaining groves is becoming more uncertain.

The board of the Mesa Citrus Growers Association decided last month to close the plant as the number of citrus orchards has dwindled and crop prices haven't kept up with production costs.

Now, the remaining 20 or so citrus farms will now have to ship produce to Yuma or California, or perhaps set up boutique fruit stands if their operation is small enough.

Either way, the loss represents the end of an era, according to state historian Marshall Trimble.

"It's part of our history, just like cannons on courthouse lawns in the deep South, back to the days of the Civil War," Trimble said.

The processing plant that's closing reached its peak in the 1995-96 season, packaging 1.4 million cartons under the Sunkist brand. That plummeted in recent years, with only 200,000 cartons in the season that just ended, general manager Bill Faysak said.

Much of the remaining citrus is concentrated in north Mesa, but he figures fewer than 20 farms remain in Maricopa and Pinal counties.

Other indicators had fallen, too. The Mesa Citrus Growers Association boasted 162 members when it formed in the mid-1930s but had just 45 members when Faysak started at the plant in 1990.

Some farmers have struggled to make money, Faysak said, because the cost of citrus has been flat for years, even as production costs have gone up.

The Phoenix metro area supported 17 packing houses in the 1960s. With the nearest plant in Yuma, industry experts said the transportation costs could be cost-prohibitive for some growers and hasten the loss of more groves.

Grapefruit was once the major crop, but the kind planted in Arizona has fallen in popularity to ruby-red varieties grown in other states. Oranges, lemons and tangerines are the most commonly grown fruits in the Phoenix area.

The need for housing has also pushed out citrus groves in recent years. Real estate experts say the places that are suitable for growing citrus are just as suitable for subdivisions.

Copyright 2010 The AP.

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