Leffingwell Ag Sales Company Inc.: Tailoring Products to Growers Since 1903

Leffingwell Ag Sales Company Inc. (Leffingwell) has made citrus its business since 1903, when it started out as just one of many citrus ranches in Southern California. More than 100 years later, citrus is still Leffingwell’s sector, but the company supplies growers rather than grows the fruit itself.

The company originated as Leffingwell Rancho in Whittier, Calif., and eventually it sold its groves and the ranch became part of Whittier Boulevard, a well-known thoroughfare in East Los Angeles. Along the way, however, Leffingwell had establishes a separate operation able to handle the chemical and agronomy needs of citrus growers, and today it continues that tradition providing specialized soil, fertilizer and agricultural services throughout the region. The supplies serviced by Leffingwell include not only fertilizer injections, dry and liquid fertilizers and chemigations, but also fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides, sunburn and frost protection, field inspections, plant tissue sampling and custom-blended soil nutrient options for growers.

The Lemons Don’t Fall Far From the Tree

Dana Gillespie’s family has been in the retail business since 1972 and, as current owner of Leffingwell, Gillespie works to assure the company consistently delivers the core components of its operations: quality products and 100-percent customer satisfaction, which result in long-term relationships. Most of the state’s citrus operations are carried out east of the San Joaquin Valley, where Leffingwell has three locations: the Lindsay home office, plus the Terra Bella and Ivanhoe operations.

Leffingwell’s motto is “assisting nature for the betterment of man,” and 30 proactive employees are dedicated to this goal. To help coordinate this workforce Gillespie relies on Chuck Hornung, Leffingwell’s general manager, who also grew up on a citrus ranch, making him right at home at Leffingwell. He’s worked in agriculture his whole life, with a long stint at Crop Production Services (CPS) overseeing locations in Oregon and Illinois. He shares a 150-acre ranch with his brother on which they grow lemons, seedless lemons, mandarins, navels, minneolas (a type of tangelo) ... a little bit of everything. “ I guess you could say I’m vertically integrated a little bit with this!” laughs Hornung.

In addition, the Hornung and Leffingwell families have long ties. “My grandfather grew up on a dairy in Michigan, and his professor at Michigan State knew Mr. Leffingwell, so they hired my grandfather [Harry Schuyler] by mail,” recalls Hornung. “He came out [to California] in the ’20s and was the general manager on the citrus side of Leffingwell through the Depression. My ma grew up on Leffingwell ranch. So, it’s a little bit of full circle here.”

Custom Blended

Leffingwell operates on a corporate philosophy that emphasizes the company’s experience, longevity, its service, knowledge, advice, performance and its ability to translate all of this into results. “Our service is quite good compared to competitors,” adds Hornung. “Service meaning delivery, drivers and fast turnaround. We also have a lot of guys with a lot of experience. Some pest-control advisors [PCAs] have been with us for 40 years ... that’s 350 years worth of experience if you add it all up. We also have a plant pathologist Ph.D. on staff that goes out to the growers and helps them out. He worked at [the University of California Riverside, known for its environmental sustainability work] for 10 years.

Drawing on these resources, Leffingwell provides superior soil conditioning and other crucial products to growers. “Over the past year or so we’ve really gotten into custom-blended fertilizer programs for customers,” states Hornung. This service is a kind of specialized agriculture the company calls “precision prescription” (though it is not to be confused with precision GPS agriculture).

These types of programs are especially valuable when taking into consideration the types of crops and style of farming pursued by many of Leffingwell’s clients. “Where we are, we deal mostly in citrus and olives,” continues Hornung. While it’s efficient and productive to grow one single crop consistently, it leads to soil depletion, and that’s where Leffingwell steps in with solutions that replenish the fields and help growers achieve specific benchmarks.

Leffingwell is actively working on a fertility program for growers to use to improve crop yield, crop size, and increased Brix – or sweetness – in oranges. “There’s a new standard for picking oranges,” explains Hornung. “They have to have higher sugar to acid ratio than they have in the past, so we’re working on different products that boost the sugar content and color of the orange itself.”
Green is Not Always Good

Recent challenges for Leffingwell include the usual suspects of market changes, foreign competition and the economy, with the added element of owner change. Gillespie’s family has long been involved with Leffingwell, and has owned the company since 2009.

“When you get change of ownership, people get nervous,” states Hornung. “That was a hurdle, but it went well. The biggest upcoming hurdle is the citrus greening issue. That’s the biggest scare on the map right now. It’s devastated Florida and it’s going to be more expensive for growers to grow it and harvest the crop.”

While “green” is often good in agriculture, the word is not welcome among citrus growers. According to the USDA, citrus greening (also known as Huanglongbing, or “yellow dragon disease”) has been known in other nations and in Florida and was confirmed in California in March 2012. It’s not dangerous to humans, but it kills trees and renders the fruit inedible, and, therefore, unsellable. There’s no known cure. “They found the vector here, but not the actual disease,” explains Hornung.

A People Business

Leffingwell is constantly upgrading to better serve growers and address evolving horticultural issues. The company expanded its fertilizer facility in Lindsay in fall 2012, and the Ivanhoe facility is up for work in 2013 to increase blending capability. “We’re always looking for ways for the company to do things quicker and easier and better,” says Hornung. “But the concept is the same: the right product for right grower for the right situation.” And all of this must be done in a safe environment. “Safety is very important,” stresses Hornung. “We want to make sure the guys get home the same way they got to work.”

Leffingwell procures most of its products from third-party agents and then custom-blends dry and liquid fertilizers for growers. Leffingwell enjoys great relationships with its roster of vendors, which can rotate as season and field needs require. “Relationships have changed depending on the products that the supplier has,” explains Hornung. “As things become in vogue or not as of interest anymore, then those suppliers and the pedigree chart will change, and that’s true of the crop protection products and the manufactures as well. It all evolves depending on what new chemistries are out there and what companies are consolidated.”

Hornung looks forward to both organic and aggressive growth. Leffingwell is actively pursuing more accounts and looking to hire additional staff. In the end, Leffingwell knows even the citrus business is all about faces, not just fields. “It’s a people business, and it’s a great business,” states Hornung. “We go out there and we do millions of dollars with growers, and there’s no contract. The way we do things may seem like stepping back a few years, but it’s worked for over a century.”

In operation for 110 years, Leffingwell Ag Sales Company Inc. combines an old-school dedication to one-on-one customer relations with the latest technologies to keep every tree and relationship healthy.