Farm Focus: Visiting Churchill Orchard Part 1
First in a two part series of posts from Frog Hollow Farm Staff member Alexa about her recent visit to Churchill Orchards in Ojai, Ca
A couple of weeks ago I was down near Santa Barbara visiting where I grew up and had the chance to drop by Churchill Farm in Ojai to visit Jim Churchill, who is one of our wonderful Frog Hollow Farm partner growers. It was a real delight to get to visit a farm so close to my childhood home and talk all about growing some of my favorite fruit in the world: citrus & avocados! Ojai’s citrus tastes like home to me and Southern Californians have been eating avocado toast since before it was cool. Getting to learn all about what makes the fruit from Churchill Farm so good (not to mention getting to taste the season’s finest fruit!) was a dream come true and I am excited to share it with our Frog Hollow CSA members
One of the most interesting things I learned while visiting Churchill Farm is about the unique climate of Ojai Valley and how it affects agriculture there. The climate is one of extremes: the all time record high in Ojai is 119 degrees and the record low is 13 degrees! Farming there is not for the faint of heart.
About 30 minutes from coast, Ojai is nestled in the breathtaking Topa Topa Mountains and feels like a whole different world from the nearby beach communities. Rincon, a beach famous for its surf, is about 20 miles from Ojai and gets its name from the Spanish word for corner. Rincon is right where California’s coast is changing from south facing near Santa Barbara to west facing In Ventura. From what I can tell this has created a plethora of unique micro climates. Just a few miles from Rincon is small town called La Conchita. The climate there is so temperate that, when I was a kid in the 90s, there used to be commercial banana orchard! Ojai, on the other hand, is inland and about 745 feet above sea level and has the feel of a high desert mountain town, complete with dry heat in summer and brisk winters.
During the winter as cold fronts move over the mountains cold air will sink to the bottom of the valley. This creates what is know as an inversion layer where the cold air above and pooled in valleys below trap warm air in between. Farmers like Jim use this to their advantage by having windmills to help mix in the warm air. He has two in the orchard, each powered by a big ol’ engine, that must be turned on manually when sensors trigger an alarm call to Jim’s phone. Jim favors the mill with the ford engine because of it’s deep, lumbering growl and I would have to agree - it sounds like a beast!
On the flip side, farming in Ojai means dealing with extreme heat. The hot dry heat of the mountains can be especially challenging for avocados. When it comes to summer heat, protecting the crop is done through preparation. Last July there was a major heat wave coming and Mike, Jim’s Orchard Manager, had the forethought to irrigate the sensitive avocados ahead of time. Temperatures reached 117-118 degrees in the valley and the extra drink kept the trees from dropping their crop. This heat wave affected the whole region’s crop so Jim, and by extension Frog Hollow CSA, is very lucky to have avocados this year!
Fire is a big part of life in this part of California but nothing in the past has compared to the 2017 Thomas Fire. Driven by fierce winds the huge fire raged across Ventura & Santa Barbara counties burning over 280,000 acres. You can see the burn scar in the mountains right behind the farm which pretty much surround Ojai. Luckily at Churchill Farm they only lost fruit from the heavy winds that were driving the fire.
All these extremes in temperature and beauty combine to make Ojai a unique place to find some of the best fruit in California. Stay tuned to the Farm Focus for more about the visit and the one and only Ojai Pixie Tangerine which will be in boxes soon.