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America's Etrog Man

American etrog farmers (Photo: flickr/susievision)

The etrog is a citron and one of the four species (along with a palm frond and leaves from the myrtle and willow trees) used by Jews on the recently observed holiday of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles. Tablet's Miriam Krule gives us a look at a Christian citrus farmer in California who is not only well-versed in Jewish law, but is the only large-scale grower of etrogs in the United States:

Growing etrogs is a difficult business. Too much sun and the yellow skin of the citrus fruit will burn; too little sun and the flowers won’t blossom. There’s infestation to worry about—red citrus mites are particularly fond of them. And then there are the religious prohibitions; blemishes render the fruit, a citron in English, useless for Sukkot, so if a branch or leaf pierces the skin of the etrog, you’re in trouble.

But John Kirkpatrick, a third-generation citrus farmer in California’s San Joaquin Valley, has overcome these obstacles and more. He’s the only large-scale grower of etrogs in the United States.

The octogenarian Kirkpatrick, who grows lemons, tangelos, and oranges in addition to etrogs on some 50 acres, is a Presbyterian. He knew almost nothing about the fruit when he was approached with an unusual business proposal more than 30 years ago. “It’s been a cultural trip for us—I’m Christian, but I now understand an awful lot about halakhic law,” Kirkpatrick said, using the Hebrew word for Jewish law, “as it relates to agriculture...”

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