Farm Focus: Jim Churchill of Churchill-Brenneis Orchard

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Jim of Churchill-Brenneis Orchard, never imagined himself becoming a farmer, though he grew up walking through friends orchards on weekend trips from LA. His parents encouraged Jim to get an education, so he did. He earned his master’s degree in Amercian Government to find himself unemployed living in Sacremento in the late 1970’s engrossed in folk music and pursuing romantic interests of the moment.

During this time Jim’s father had come into an inheritance and decided to purchase land in Ojai, on which he planted 37 acresof Bacon avocados. Jim’s mother encouraged Jim to come home to run the ranch and he did, though he had no experience in agriculture. Jim’s first harvest of avocados was in 1978 and he got 60 cents a pound. In 1979, the avocado industry decided to support nothing but Hass avocados and he got 14 cents per pound. Things weren’t looking promising for the avocado ranch. Ojai is too rocky for anything besides citrus but he didn’t want to be a Sunkist orange grower like most of the neighboring farms so Jim started thinking about tangerines.

One day when hanging out with a childhood friend who’d also come back to Ojai to help his family’s farm, he picked up a tangerine in their packing house and ate one of their tangerines. At that point, he knew exactly what he wanted to grow and asked his friend about the fruit. They only had two trees of this particular variety and their family just ate them. It was a Pixie tangerine, which at that time was not in commercial production. Jim planted 80 trees that very year. By 1985 the tangerines started coming in and Jim had grafted about half of the avocados over to Hass. When the Pixies came in he tried to sell them to grocery stores and produce managers to no avail. Because Pixies are a late season variety, in their minds, there was no place for Pixies since the citrus season was over.

His wife, Lisa Brenneis who is the creative energy and organizational force of the farm, had a restaurateur friend down to the orchard visiting from Berkeley. After their friend tasted the Pixies he declared that Bill Fujimoto of Monterey Market in Berkeley needed to taste them. That was pretty much the start of when the Pixie became a coveted fruit. Bill Fujimoto fostered and developed many young farmers growing unique varieties. Bay Area chefs used to congregate in the back of the Monterey Market to try new produce. Lindsey Shere, founding pastry chef at Chez Panisse, tried one of Jim’s Pixies and then featured them at the restaurant. From that point on Jim was standing on solid ground and building his business. Today Jim and Lisa grow several varieties of citrus and three varieties of avocados. We hope you’ve been enjoying their delicious avocados as much as we have. We are looking forward to including some of their infamous Pixies in your boxes soon!