Honoring a Citrus Farm Legacy
A gift to American Farmland Trust of an avocado ranch in the Pauma Valley pays tribute to California produce giant Sam Perricone.
Sam Perricone was a legend in the produce industry. He began his empire in 1935 as a teenager when he got his start picking lemons in the citrus groves of the San Fernando Valley to support his family after his father died. At 16, he sold fruit in Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. “He would sell the lemons out of his truck,” says his grandson Sammy Perricone. “Eventually, he saved enough money to buy his own lemon grove. Then, his business grew from there to become one of the largest citrus growers in the country.” By the late 1940s, the Sam Perricone Citrus Co. Inc. had become one of the nation’s largest wholesale distributors of oranges, lemons, tangerines, and grapefruit. When Sam died in 2011 at the age of 91, he left behind a farm legacy that included scores of agricultural businesses and thousands of acres of avocado, citrus, and nut groves from Arizona to California’s Central Valley. Today, Perricone Farms is still owned and operated by the Perricone family, with the children and grandchildren of Sam and his wife Mary at the helm.
In 2020, the Perricone family honored Sam’s legacy with a bargain sale of Pauma Mountain Ranch to American Farmland Trust so the land can be permanently protected. Known in the area as Sam’s Mountain Ranch, the 454-acre avocado and citrus grove—in a San Diego County region significant for farming and Native American heritage—was sold subject to an agricultural conservation easement that keeps the land in farming.
“We will honor Sam’s legacy by permanently protecting the ranch, a focal point of the Pauma Valley, and one of the first properties that he owned,” says Jerry Cosgrove, director of American Farmland Trust’s Farm Legacy program. “We also want to support the continuation of farming in the Pauma Valley, which is a unique agricultural area.”
Sammy fondly recalls childhood picnics with his family on the mountain, which overlooks the valley and contains a beneficial climate for the avocados that thrive on the hillsides. “It’s beautiful. We grew up going out to the ranch,” he says.” We would have picnics out there as a family. If on Monday we heard we were going out for a picnic on Saturday, we’d be so excited that we couldn’t sleep the whole week. We thought everybody did that. Doesn’t everyone go pick oranges or avocados on the weekends and have picnics with their family?”
Saving the mountain ranch is a fitting tribute to Sam’s legacy, says Sammy, who works in the family citrus business with his brothers Mike and Jason, their parents, and several relatives. “My grandfather’s big thing was that if you respect the land, the land will take care of you. He was a quiet guy, and his form of verbal teaching was just wanting to be on the land whenever possible as a family. There was nothing better than that. We learned to love agriculture through the way that we ate, whether it was digging for clams at the ocean or pulling fruit off the tree.”
Sam’s legacy extends to the way he conducted business for many decades. “When Japanese Americans were put in internment camps during World War II and forced to give up their stalls at the produce market in Los Angeles, my grandfather bought as many of the stalls as he could afford and managed them until the war was over. Then he gave them back to the original owners. That’s the kind of person he was,” Sammy says. “He was all about the art of fairness. A deal wasn’t a good deal unless it was good for everyone.”
As of January 2024, American Farmland Trust is in the process of working with San Diego County to permanently protect the ranch with an agricultural conservation easement before reselling it, subject to the terms of the agricultural conservation easement. Learn more about agricultural conservation easements here.
Giving a family farm or ranch to the Farm Legacy Program ensures the land’s long-term protection and availability for farming while supporting American Farmland Trust’s mission. To learn more about our Farm Legacy Program, click here.
Note: This story was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of American Farmland Trust’s member newsletter. To learn more about becoming a member and supporting AFT’s work, please click here.