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FoodPaths - April, 2014
Pixies From Paradise: Ojai Pixie Tangerines
Emily Friend Thacher Ayala

Emily Friend Thacher is a fifth-generation Ojai, CA. grower of Ojai Pixie Tangerines, one of the world's great varieties. An impassioned farmer and entomologist, and the leader of a passionate group of 42 Ojai growers dedicated to consumer-driven education about this unique variety, bred and cultivated nearly 50 years ago, Emily is driven to educate consumers about Pixies from Paradise within the explosion of small citrus flooding the marketplace.

Emily Friend Thacher Ayala

Small-size citrus has become one of the most successful produce innovations in recent years. Large corporate marketing has taken over its branding and positioning. As boxes of branded small citrus flood the marketplace, the Ojai Pixie Tangerine growers are staking out a place to protect their premium fruit. Let’s begin with a few facts about Ojai Pixie Tangerines.

There is a huge amount of confusion over the proliferation of small citrus in the marketplace today,” said Emily. “We don’t object to branded names or efficiencies in large production to serve a global market. We DO want consumers to be aware of the difference between fruit sold as a branded trade name and fruit sold as a unique variety. When a consumer shops for food, we believe that person when should know what they are buying.”

Emily is referring to the entry of industrial growing, processing and marketing into small citrus, led by the proliferation of trademarked brands, packaged and sold as “Cuties®,” Halos®”, and other catchy trade names, and largely comprised of two varieties of Clementine and W. Murcott mandarins.  A mandarin is a hybrid fruit, a cross between a sweet orange and a Chinese mandarin orange.

A July 13, 2012 Wall Street Journal article, “Big War Over a Small Fruit,” by Miriam Johnson, described the rise of small citrus as exemplifying”…the arrival of big-money marketing in a tradition-steeped corner of American industry.” Johnson continued, offering, “…techniques once used for promoting products have now made their way into the produce section.”

Nearly a year later, on May 20, 2013, Emily’s comments rang true when a custody battle, involving two of the produce industry’s largest small citrus producers, Sun Pacific and Paramount Citrus, was settled after a decade of collaboration between the two partners  growing, processing, and marketing the Cuties® brand.  The Packer, one of the produce industry’s premier publications, estimated that the collaboration culminated with 95 million boxes of the small citrus mandarins shipped in 2012-2013.

Sun Pacific received the rights to the Cuties® trademark, its relationships with other growers, and a focus on more direct marketing;  Paramount Citrus (entering a new partnership with Fresno-based Fowler Packing),   regained complete control of its fruit.  Paramount , the industry’s largest grower of mandarins, now sells its small citrus, renamed Halos®, in 3 and 5 pound boxes, marketed under the company’s Wonderful Brands portfolio that includes pistachios, pomegranates, and almonds. 

What this means is that in an era where consumers are demanding more information regarding  where their food comes from, this small, glossy, deep-orange fruit, acre-by-acre, the most profitable citrus in America, is landing on market shelves, sourced and aggregated from many orchards, processed and packed together, and sold in mix and matched branded bags and boxes.   It’s up to the consumer to take a look at what’s in the bag or the box before heading for check-out.

“Institutional growers need to harvest and pack on a market-delivery schedule,” explained Emily.  “Ripeness may vary by grower and location.  Sometimes the fruit is stored and warehoused depending on market conditions.   The consumer does not always get consistent flavor.  One package may have sweet flavors; the next tart.  Sometimes there are blemishes on the fruit, or darkened patches due to frost.  The more educated a consumer is about what the fruit SHOULD taste like, the better produce he or she will have ion their tables.

“Ripeness depends on when the fruit is picked,” Emily continued. “We don’t blanket pick. We walk the orchards and feel the readiness of the fruit. We pick when the fruit is ready to come off the trees to assure maximum sweetness and quality. The name of the grower is on every box that bears the Ojai Pixie Tangerine label. We want buyers to know which farm grew that box of fruit, and which farmer stands behind every piece.”

“Pixies can grow in other places,” added Emily. “But they often do not develop the flavor or the quality that is reflective of the Ojai Valley. We are located in a micro-climate, with hot days, cool nights and fog coming in from the Pacific. Pixies are not that big and are susceptive to frost, but Ojai has the perfect climate for this variety. In many ways, it’s like growing Cabernet grapes in the Napa Valley. It’s the terroir that yields the distinct flavor profile. Traditional Mendelian genetic plant breeding has produced the character of the variety itself. We’re proud of our Pixies and want the public to be able to distinguish us.”

Emily’s grandfather, Elmer Friend, is largely credited with establishing the Pixie Tangerine as a terroir-driven variety in the Ojai Valley.  The family business, Friend’s Ranches is at its heart. Ojai (pronounced “OH-hi”), is located in Ventura County, 80 miles Northwest of Los Angeles, 15 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by hills, mountains and rolling canyons. I had heard that the 4.5 mile square town was known for its pink sunsets, but in the morning sun, the stunning landscape seemed to reflect an orange hue. It was early in the day. I had to stop and take a closer look. I was not experiencing a vision. The terraced hills and canyons were alive with brilliant orange citrus groves. Not just any citrus groves, but groves of Ojai Pixie Tangerines planted directly across the road from the Friend’s Ranch packinghouse where Emily suggested we meet.

For our readers unfamiliar with what a packinghouse is, or does, a brief explanation. A packinghouse is one of the central connectors between farmer and consumer, serving much like a highway interchange. Picking and packing has not changed much in over a century. Within the Ojai citrus community, each piece of fruit is clipped individually by hand from the trees, loaded into boxes or bins, and taken to the packinghouse. Here the fruit is run through machines, sized for consistency, with unripe or poor quality fruit culled by hand. Because citrus emanating from Friend’s Ranches is not treated with preservatives, artificial color or wax, there is no storage. Fruit is sent out for delivery the day it is packed. In large commercial plants, fruit is often stored in large coolers at temperatures ranging from 38-40 degrees, with time from tree to consumer averaging four to six weeks.

The recipient might be a family ordering direct via mail order from the packinghouse, a wholesaler (like Melissa’s World Produce), distributing the product to retail markets, or a processing plant that takes fruit (for instance, oranges) and turns it into something else, i.e. orange juice. The packinghouse is a hub of activity, often serving as clubhouse and a locus for communication among sellers and buyers. This was precisely the environment when I entered Friend’s Ranch packinghouse where Emily, her brother, George, and their father, Tony, were racing to move the day’s orders out the door. The family also has a small farm stand at the entrance where neighbors can stop by and buy produce picked daily.

From its earliest days, marketing Ojai citrus had been a challenge due to its location away from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Faced with a decline in the market for Valencia oranges which served as the core of the family’s crop during the first half of the 20th century, Emily’s grandfather, Elmer, took two critical steps that would ultimately change the shape of the business.

First he began to plant Dancy tangerines (one of the earliest varieties). While the Dancy grew well, it did not store well off the tree. Seeds also made them less commercially desirable. Second, he built an independent packinghouse, eliminating the dependence on external distribution channels. The tangerines took well to the Ojai microclimate; the packinghouse was a success, with 25 per cent of the fruit sold retail, the rest to wholesale markets in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the surrounding region, with excess sold to Sunkist for processing.

While the Pixie Tangerine was first developed in 1927 by Howard B. Frost at the University of California Citrus Research Center, it was two researchers at the University of California, Riverside, James W. Cameron and Robert K. Soost, that subsequently released the Pixie for public purchase. In 1965 the first trees were planted in Ojai by Frank Noyse, a friend of the appropriately named Friend Family.

Emily’s grandfather also planted a few of the new Pixies as an experiment, although most of the early Pixie pioneers felt the trees would be viable only for “backyard growing” because the fruit was small, sensitive to frost, and bore fruit in alternate years. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Pixie Tangerine’s flavor profile flourished in the Ojai micro-climate.

And then, in the Ojai flood of 1969, disaster struck. With the orchards pretty much untouched, and fruit ready to be harvested, the packinghouse, built only one year earlier, washed away in the strong flood waters. Without the packinghouse, there was no way to pick and process the fruit. At the time, Anne and Tony, Emily’s parents, were away from Ojai pursuing other careers. They returned to help re-build the business. Emily and her brother, George, were born soon after, growing up amidst the Pixies. Out of the loss came opportunity. With Emily’s parents now relocated back in Ojai, and farmer’s markets taking hold during the decade of the 1970’s, Friend’s Ranches began to diversify their tangerine plantings, planting more Pixies. Taking the Pixies to the farmer’s markets, the discovered children loved them. Tony passed his success with the Pixies to his childhood friends Bob David, Jim Churchill and Mike Shore, who planted more Pixies. With an expanding community of growers eager to share their success with others, Ojai became a center for the new variety – preceding by more than two decades the mass commercialization of branded small citrus.

“My brother and I were surrounded by citrus growing up, but we always focused on the Pixie,” said Emily who received a graduate degree from U.S. Davis in entomology, and owns the family business with her brother, father and mother. She also serves on the Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP) Task Force, the farmer group working with federal and state agencies dealing with the invasive pest and the deadly disease it spreads, huanglongbing. (HLB). With new citrus pests and diseases increasing over the past few years, the potential for extensive damage within commercial groves – and backyard citrus – is high.

* * *

After a morning of orchard visits and packinghouse lessons, we moved on to lunch with several growers. Each dish on the table featured their favorite fruit; everyone pitched in with final preparations. Jim Churchill, known as the Tangerine Man of Churchill Orchard, mixed the salad, Bill Palladini of Bella Collina Orchards, poured the wine, George’s wife, Marcia reigned in the kitchen, Emily’s mother, Anne, and brother George, oversaw the table.

Like many other grower associations concerned with selling premium, quality-based products, the Ojai group is determine to educate consumers in the differences between hand-crafted, small lot food and large scale agriculture.

Embedded in the community, the Ojai growers are all family farmers, many of whom have grown citrus for more than a century. And, like many other agricultural areas, there is a noticeable spirit of generosity, collaboration and mutual cooperation among the friends and colleagues. Emily’s leadership and the centralized role of the packinghouse is the glue that keeps the group moving forward against the ferocious market competition. It also allows for a common plan of action and community awareness against any pest invasion or potential disease in the groves.

“Emily and her family have been in the Valley for 5 or 6 generations,” explained Jim. “They have a reputation that is unquestionable. Trust is secured with a handshake. We know each other personally and we like working together. For us, selling a box of fruit consisting of unequal ripeness and quality is not acceptable. Nor is fruit treated with chemical preservatives or wax. Any consumer purchasing fruit in a box or a bag at a large retail chain should read the label. It may prove eye-opening.”

“It’s a challenge to differentiate our product from a marketing standpoint, but that’s actually a good thing,” added Bill Palladini. “The corporate people want to sell a generic branded product. We are selling a premium quality product where consumers actually have the opportunity to compare and taste the difference. OUR product IS our story. Our fruit bears the face of the farmer. And that would be us.”

Emily had the last word. “We have a sense of community here that dates back a century. Our relationships with our neighbors are not only professional, but personal. We have a commitment to what we do and to each other. Each generation of family knows the generation that came before. And just like the generations of growers that were the early pioneers in what we are growing now, we know that there are plant breeders at work coming up with the next generation of new varieties. Just think of the next generation of Ojai Pixie Tangerines and the flavors still to be discovered. That’s GREAT for the consumer!”

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