It’s no secret that I have a “thing” for citrus. So when I was asked by Melissa’s Produce if I would be interested in touring the Pixie Tangerine orchards in Ojai, CA with some of my fellow bloggers and get a “sneak peek” of the fruit before the harvest – I couldn’t say “YES!!” quickly enough!!
We set our before dawn for Ojai to visit three orchards - the Friends Ranch Orchard, the Black Jack Orchards and The Churchill and Brennis Orchards. I expected to see lots of trees laden with tangerines (be still my heart!!) to learn all about growing pixie’s and to
gorge snack on lots of delicious tangerines. I was not disappointed.
In fact, I was as happy as a pig in clover – or in this case a citrus obsessed woman in a tangerine orchard (cue your mental image of Ferdinand the Bull and you’ll have it about right…).
But there was something I didn’t expect.
A story that would touch my heart.
The story of the Pixie Tangerine.
My introduction to the Pixie started at the Friend’s Ranch Orchard. where Tony Thacher and his daughter Emily taught us about growing Pixie’s in their beautiful orchard . We learned about how new trees are grown, how the Thacher’s determine when the fruit is ready to harvest, and how the temperature affects the color of the fruit. But it was the story of the Pixie’s start in the valley that held my attention. Tony told us that years ago, on the recommendation of a friend, he planted a few Pixie tangerine trees. He never really considered them as a commercial crop – despite being seedless, sweet and utterly addictive, Pixies are a bit fussy to grow, they are small and and they mature later – typically between March and June, well past the main citrus season. Not ideal characteristics for a commercial crop by any means and so Tony considered them more of a backyard fruit. In fact, by the time he was finished harvesting the other tangerine varieties, his children had pretty much already stripped the Pixie trees of their fruit!
It wasn’t until a fateful day in the late 70′s that the idea of growing Pixie’s for the commercial market began to take root – and for that part of the story we headed over to the Churchill and Brennis Orchard where we went on a tour with Jim Churchill.
In the middle of Jim’s beautiful orchard Jim picked up the tale of the Pixie tangerine. He told us that his father had started his family’s orchards many years ago with avocado trees. When Jim took over the farm in the late 1970′ the farm was in dire straights. The avocado variety his father had grown was no longer popular and Jim was struggling to find a way to save his family’s orchards.
One day when he was visiting Tony he picked up a Pixie, peeled it and popped it in his mouth. It was one of the best things he’d ever tasted.
And the answer was staring him in the face… or rather in the mouth!
He was going to grow Pixie Tangerines for the commercial market. So, he and Tony, convinced of the Pixie’s potential set to work on marketing the Pixie.
It wasn’t easy – they sold the Pixie’s at farmer’s markets, to restaurants, specialty markets and by direct mail. There were times when they wondered if growing Pixie’s commercially would succeed.
But their passion for growing and sharing Pixie tangerines didn’t waiver – and for that, I am truly grateful!
And I guarantee that if you taste one, you will be too. They are that good.
Fortunately Tony and Jim were right, and today, there are 41 growers of Pixie Tangerines in the Valley who work in tandem to grow and harvest this amazing fruit.
Even if you don’t live in or around Ojai, you can taste one too.(ok, who am I kidding, you can’t stop at just one, trust me). These little Pixie’s should start appearing in your market in around the 10th or so of March thanks to Melissa’s Produce who ships them all over the country – they can even be found at Yankee Stadium!!
As I said, they are fabulous all on their own – but if you happen to buy a few more than you can eat (if that’s possible) then here are a couple of recipes that can help with any cases of overabundance (or you could just invite me over - I’d be happy to help you out with that problem!)