Farm Focus: Churchill Orchard Visit Part 2
Part 2 of of Alexa’s Farm Visit to Churchill Orchard in Ojai, California.
I have lived in 4 states in the last decade and nothing compares to California citrus. South Texas produces some wonderful grapefruit and limes but the diversity and quality of California citrus can simply not be beat.
As we discussed last week, Ojai’s climate, while extreme, is well suited to citrus therefore Churchill Farm is located in a wonderful place for quality fruit. Even so, there is always trial and error when it comes to finding the right varieties to grow at a farm. All modern citrus is descended from a few wild varieties that cross bred in nature and then were selectively bred by farmers to create the dizzying amount of varieties we are able to enjoy. Shopping at a big grocery store you might just see “mandarins”, “oranges”, “lemons” and “limes” but when you start buying from small diverse farms you quickly learn about how mandarins (aka tangerines*) can be Gold Nugget, Murcott or delicious Ojai Pixies! Each variety of each type of fruit can vary by size, color, flavor, seed content, disease resistance, ease of peeling and climate needs. Citrus’ genetic predisposition to hybridize has resulted in a literal rainbow of citrus varieties, from the gigantic pomelo to tiny kumquats and even caviar limes.
You can see from Churchill Orchard packing shed’s sorting trays (below) that most everything is done by hand, from picking avocados into hand held boxes to packing beautiful Kishu Mandarins. These delicate little orbs of gold are worthy of their cult following among chefs and fruit geeks like me. When grown well, like Jim’s, they have a wonderful aromatic flavor with the perfect balance of sweet and tart. Unfortunately they are very delicate which, combined with their small size, makes them a nightmare to harvest and transport. We were lucky enough to try a few of the last harvest, headed to the Berkeley Farmers market, and they were heavenly. We also tried some wonderful Page Mandarins and some of the early Pixies which weren’t quite ripe yet but were already sweeter and more flavorful than most of the fruit you get in a grocery store!
Pixies were developed in the 1920s at UC Riverside and released commercially in the 1960s but they didn’t take off immediately. Jim’s dad had originally planted their orchard with Bacon Avocados in 1974 and by 1979 the market for Bacons had dried up and the California industry had begun moving over to the Hass you most commonly see today. Jim was visiting his friend Tony Thacher’s orchard, eating fruit out of bins (as one does when you hang out at a fruit farm) and fell in love with one delicious variety of mandarin. Tony said they were called Pixies. He only had two trees but by the time he was done harvesting his other mandarins each season his kids had already eaten all the fruit from the Pixie trees. Jim knew he was on to something, especially if kids liked them, so he decided to replace some of his Bacon Avocados with Pixies. Bringing Tony along for the ride they became the first commercial growers of Pixie tangerines and the rest is history (and a whole lot of hard work).
For a long time tangerines* have been associated with the early winter and so back when Jim first started growing Pixies they were a major outlier because they don’t ripen until March. When his fruit was ripe and ready to sell grocery store produce isles didn’t have room among the regular early spring fruit. Luckily, times have changed and we all look forward to a long citrus season reaching well into spring. Jim was able to recognize early on the wonderful opportunity to grow Pixies, which are well suited to Ojai’s unique climate and pack incredible flavor into the their golden skin! Fast forward to 2019: Pixies are synonymous with Ojai, due to the hard work of the Ojai Pixie Growers Association which Jim helped found in the 1990s. This group of about 40 local family farms works hard to grow, pack, market and sell Ojai Pixies.
We are so happy to continue our partnership with Churchill Farm and I am so glad to have the opportunity to visit. Keep an eye out for Pixies in our CSA fruit boxes in the coming weeks. In the meantime, enjoy those avocados while they last. Both will be available in small box add-ons in the CSA webstore while we have them!
* A note on tangerines vs mandarins. Tangerines were thought to have come through northern africa while mandarins were thought to have come from China. In actuality both probably originated from their wild relatives in south east asia.