I’ve been a supporter of the buy local, eat sustainable “movement” my entire life – in fact, I was an unknowing early adopter. I grew up in a household where nearly everything on our plate was a result of my family’s hard labor: dad’s planting and harvesting, mom’s constant cooking and canning, and the many chores that we kids had while growing up on our farm a few miles south of Eureka Springs in the gently rolling hills of the Ozarks in northwest Arkansas. Of course, we didn’t appreciate it at the time, summer was fun but it also meant endless hours of weeding before the sun was high overhead and the humidity stifling.
Old memories came flooding back when I found myself traipsing through the Pixie tangerine orchards of Ojai with a few of my fellow blogger buds courtesy of Melissa’s Produce. Surrounded by the pastoral beauty of Ojai, listening to the grower’s stories of how they came to be tangerine farmers and founders of the Ojai Pixie Growers Association, and witnessing their passion for the land was an unforgettable experience.
Our first stop was Friend’s Ranches where Tony Thacher and his daughter Emily Thacher-Ayala enlightened us on tangerines, mandarins, and clementines – they are actually all hybrids of the mandarin which originated in Asia, and have come to be known by different names depending on where they’re grown. The Pixie tangerine is a super sweet, seedless variety developed in 1927 at UC Riverside and released for production in 1965. It was a small, somewhat bumpy skinned citrus that thrived in the rich soil of the Ojai Valley and the warm days and cool nights during the fall were perfect for the maturing fruit.
The Thachers first began selling at farmers markets across Southern California and eventually developed quite a following. With bumpy, uneven skin the Pixie isn’t as pleasing to the eye as other citrus, but people have discovered that it’s what inside that counts – just as Thacher, Ayala, and Jim Churchill of Churchill Orchards – knew all along. Today, the Ojai Pixie Growers Association, formed by the Thacher and Churchill families, is 41 farms strong with 145 acres devoted to Pixies in Ojai. They take great pride in bringing together such a diverse group of people, all with a singular passion for growing citrus and keeping agriculture in their small valley.
At each stop we sampled tangerines – first in the sorting area, then in the fields directly from the trees: Ojai Pixies, Dancy tangerines, Page mandarins, W. Murcott mandarins, tart Yosemite Gold’s, and tiny Kishu’s. Easy to peel, seedless, and bursting with sweet juiciness – it’s no wonder that Ojai Pixie tangerines are finding fans everywhere – restaurants, stores, distributors, and even Yankee stadium, thanks to Melissa’s Produce!
Standing beneath regal centuries-old oak trees, Jim Churchill recounted what brought him back to his hometown of Ojai to convert the family farm into a citrus orchard. “I’ve always liked tangerines; one day I tasted a Pixie tangerine over at Tony Thacher’s place and thought it was one of the best things I’d ever tasted. I asked Tony if he sold them and he said that he only had a few trees, and by the time he was done picking his Dancy tangerines his kids had always eaten all the Pixies. That seemed like a pretty strong endorsement to me, so I went and planted a bunch of Pixie trees in the blind faith that we would find a market for the fruit. Lisa (Brenneis) and I met in LA and married in 1988; just in time to spend our first anniversary sorting the first commercial crop of frost-bitten Pixies in a leaky tin shed. So romantic. We received crucial early support from Bill Fujimoto of the Monterey Market who bought our entire production from 1989 – 1995 and slowly built a reputation for the Ojai Pixie. Bill cultivates farmers with the same care that farmers cultivate their crops, and without him it’s possible that Ojai Pixies wouldn’t ever have found their market. Melissa’s World Variety picked up the torch in 1996 and has been instrumental in bringing the Ojai Pixie to the rest of the United States.” Churchill Orchards have been CCOF-certified Organic since 2007.
- 2 -3 tangerines supremedOjai pixie tangerines, tangerines, tangerine parfait
- juice from the tangerines
- 1 banana peeled and sliced
- 1 cup Greek-style yogurt
- 2 tablespoons roasted pistachios coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons candied ginger
- fresh mint for garnish
- 1 tablespoon organic Chia seeds
Supreme* (the French term for sectioning citrus) the tangerines – do this on a plate to save the juices for the parfait. Peel the tangerine, using a sharp paring knife or fillet knife cut down along the sides to remove the skin and pith. Use your knife to carefully release each segment from the membrane.
Spoon yogurt into the bottom of the goblet, add tangerine segments, sprinkle with pistachios, add more yogurt, bananas, and candied ginger, drizzle with the tangerine juice and sprinkle with chia seeds. Chia seeds are hailed as the Aztec superfood - they are an excellent vegetarian source of omega fatty acids and antioxidants.
We left the valley invigorated and inspired to spread the Pixie love, and NOW is the season! I saw clementines and mandarins in the store today and received word from Melissa’s that the Ojai Pixie Growers are picking this weekend, so be on the lookout this coming week! With the fruit I brought home from our growers tour, I created a light, bright, refreshing parfait packed with nutritious nuts, fruit and yogurt to rev up our Sunday. I used three varieties: a W. Murcott (recognizable, by a circular pattern at the stem end), a Page, and several of the tiny Kishu’s. I think these were my favorite, if only because they are so tiny and knowing that there are chefs who eagerly await their arrival with hopes of buying the entire lot.
Thank you to Melissa’s – and keep your eyes peeled for the Pixies!