On 400 acres in the Borrego Springs area in California’s low desert, in the southeastern part of the state, Seley Ranches is a family-run citrus orchard.
Four generations of Seleys have farmed the land, while continuing to diversify into commodity trading, and spreading their wings from California to Washington.
Jim Seley, the head of the family, tells a memorable tale of how his family came to farm in this area, which boasts scorching summer temperatures that can touch 125 degrees, and cool desert winters.
His father, Hal, was raised on a farm in Pennsylvania before he came out west.
“My grandad was a teamster helping harvest wheat, and my dad used to walk alongside him, throwing rocks at the mules to keep them moving,” Seley said.
They set up a fruit stand in Idaho, then went on to Washington where his grandfather worked in the timber industry. Eventually someone told him about the Anza-Borrego valley. He went south to check it out, and stayed.
His father grew up in the region, and bought 160 acres of citrus and table grapes in 1957. Back then, they had mostly table grapes, but that changed over time because the naturally occurring nitrates in the soil helped with an early harvest, but also hurt the grapes, which would shatter. So the Seleys converted most of their land to citrus.
Today, the orchard, which has 370 planted acres, grows grapefruit (Marsh Ruby and Rio Red), tangerines (Daisy and Minneola), and lemons (Lisbon and Eureka). It’s famous for its Seley Reds, which are grapefruit.
Jim and his middle son, Mike, oversee the orchard, but are also involved in Seley Trading, a commodity trading business that buys and sells byproducts such as almond shells, cotton seed and bakery waste.
Oldest son Jim is in Washington and focuses on bakery waste, which is sold as animal feed to poultry, swine and dairy farms.
“It’s all stuff you and I eat, but it’s gone out of calendar,” Seley said. “We represent a lot of big bakeries, and they’ll have overruns or ovens that didn’t work right, so we’ll pick it up and process it.”
Youngest son Ron is also involved in trading, while daughter Kathleen runs a hair salon and helps out with community events the Seleys help organize.
The family lives away from the orchard, in big cities such as Pasadena, near Los Angeles, which makes it more feasible to focus on commodity trading, but stays involved in the operations.
Almond shells and hulls present a big business opportunity, given that California accounts for about 82 percent of the world’s supply. The hull is sort of sweet tasting, offering good fiber and energy content as cattle feed. The shell is mostly used as animal bedding, Seley said.
The citrus is sold locally and exported to Japan, Europe and Australia. In Borrego Springs, Seley also follows the old-fashioned honor system, having workers set out 10-pound sacks of fruit. People stop by to pick it up, and put money in the box.
“We find most people are pretty honest,” he said. It’s a system he began when he took over from his father. He moved to Borrego Springs as a young adult, at 22 years, with a wife and child in tow.
The ranch is about 7 miles outside town, which has a year-round population of about 3,000 but balloons to 10,000 to 15,000 during the winter when tourists flood the area looking for the wildflowers for which the Anza-Borrego valley is famous. This winter, with the generous rains California had, there was plenty for sightseeing.
Summers tend to be quiet, as the town empties out, except for folks who farm and those who help maintain the golf courses in the desert resorts.
“You get used to the heat. Back then we had swamp coolers instead of air conditioning,” he recalled.
Water is a big challenge in the region, but Seley has had well water to rely on.
“We’ve worked really very hard to save water even before it was in fashion,” he said. “When we first came here, everything was flood irrigation, which wastes water. The soil is sandy. Back in 1968, we put in 40 acres of drip irrigation, now we’ve expanded that across the ranch, and reduced consumption from 9 acre-feet during flood irrigation times to about 6 acre-feet of water. We also use mulches to retain moisture in the soil.”
He transitioned to organic about 10 years ago, a conversion that he said wasn’t too difficult since the ranch already used limited conventional products.
Seley feels satisfaction the citrus orchard and trading operations will continue its work with future generations at the helm.
“My children are all involved, so I’m sure it’s going to be in good hands,” he said, joking that “I’m 77 and actively involved, don’t know any better. Wife wants me to retire so I can clean the basement and garage, so I think I’d rather keep working.”