For Mark Palamountain, life as a Wall Street day trader was just a little too close to how it’s portrayed in the movies.
When he decided to look for a new career path, he co-founded a solar energy company that would introduce him to the world of agriculture and lead him to take on the role of CFO at Santa Paula lemon grower Limoneira.
“It was a huge learning curve,” he said. “I had to understand all the blocking and tackling of farming and the inputs, like water, pest control, organic farming … It just goes right to the bottom line.”
As CEO of Perpetual Power, Palamountain helped Limoneira install its first five-acre solar field at its Santa Paula headquarters. When the 2008 financial crisis stalled solar tax credits and investment, the company asked him down from where he was living in the Bay Area as a consultant.
“They decided it would be best if there was a business guy to manage the farming,” he said. “I kind of chuckled for a minute. I didn’t know anything about fertilizer or farming.”
He joined the company permanently in 2012 as director of business development and integration and had taken the role of senior director of agricultural operations when the CFO role opened up in 2018.
“I really tried to hone in on the economics of the farm and make it as profitable as possible,” he said. “I learned every tree on every ranch, went to all of our properties all over the world and really learned the business from the bottom up.”
Shortly after he was named CFO, Palamountain oversaw a $69 million secondary stock offering that helped fund the purchase of citrus packing operation Oxnard Lemon. That deal catapulted the company’s capacity to 10 million pounds of lemons per year, well on its way to achieving its goal of 30 million pounds of citrus annually by 2030.
That number is expected to grow even further, as around 1,200 acres of new plantings come online, Palamountain said.
“The opportunity for our trees to become full bearing with money we’ve already invested will give us another 3 million cartons of our own fruit.”
A new packinghouse that opened in 2016 tripled the company’s output and allowed them to recruit additional outside growers under the banner of its One World of Citrus campaign.
Limoneria’s revenue growth over the last three years has been steady, punctuated by a spike in 2019 sales, when it brought in $171.4 million in revenue — a more than a 41 percent increase since 2017. Despite an economic shutdown that initially gutted sales for its top food service clients, the company reported third quarter revenue up 5.3 percent in 2020 and a profit of 12 cents per share that reversed a year-ago loss. It sold a record 2 million cartons of lemons last quarter and avocado volume increased.
The coronavirus pandemic has meant keeping a tight rein on expenses, Palamountain said.
“The difficult part about farming, especially for a long-term tree like lemons, you can’t change your input costs too much for the longevity and efficacy of the tree,” he said. “You can’t change the way you farm based on your current position.”
Outside of its lemon production, Limoneira and Palamountain’s top order of business is the company’s Harvest at Limoneira housing project, the largest housing development currently under way in Ventura County. As lots continue to sell, the massive housing and community development is shifting into high gear. In June the project closed an additional 42 single-family home lots, bringing the number of lots sold this year to 76; 286 out of 632 lots have been sold in the initial phase of development.
Sustainability is still a core part of what Palamountain does. New solar installations — including one on the roof of the new packing house and a partnership with Tesla to implement battery technology — power around 50 percent of Limoneira’s packing operations. It aims to get the rest of the way in the next five to seven years, Palamountain said, including efforts to design a waste-to-energy facility with Oxnard organic matter recycling firm Agromin.
While the job would normally mean significant travel, he’s been grounded since the onset of the pandemic. That means he’s close to home for his work on the Dean’s Executive Council of the California Lutheran University School of Management, providing input on how to adapt its curriculum to a new virtual environment. He can also occasionally be found boating with his family out to the Channel Islands.