The Coveted Tangerines of Churchill Orchards in Ojai, California

May 16, 2017
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Nothing says the start of a new year quite like citrus season. Meyer lemons, Cara Cara oranges, satsuma tangerines make their annual appearance in all their juicy, tangy, zesty glory. Add to that mix a California favorite mandarin: the Ojai Pixie.

This sweet, seedless tangerine hails from the Ojai Valley, a citrus nirvana east of Santa Barbara that has long been home to organic farmers, spiritual seekers, and nature lovers. The valley now evokes a hippie-meets-hipster vibe: The restaurant Farmer and the Cook serves up raw cabbage-leaf tacos with cashew cream and Swiss chard enchiladas. Meanwhile, Summer Camp, a former gas station that’s now a store with a cool Cub Scout theme, sells a carefully chosen selection of retro housewares.

The Ojai Pixie has found an avid fan base in the East Bay. Grower Lisa Brenneis of Churchill Orchard grew up in North Berkeley and returns each citrus season to spend time with her mom, hang out at favorite food haunts, and sell her farm’s fruit to longtime customers at Berkeley’s Thursday and Saturday markets.

Brenneis is the partner—in life and on the farm—of Jim Churchill. More than 25 years ago, Churchill traded in a career in community nonprofit work to run the family ranch. Casting about for a crop to replace the Bacon avocado, which had fallen out of favor in deference to the Haas, he wondered if tangerines might be the ticket to sustaining the farm. But he wasn’t sure which variety would win over consumers. Burned on his Bacon avocado experience, he knew that variety matters.

Another local grower introduced the Pixie to Churchill, who popped the fruit in his mouth, figured he’d found a potentially sweet fix to his produce problem, and promptly got himself a bunch of Pixie trees to plant.

Churchill met Brenneis, a filmmaker, 30 years ago, when he went to work at his father’s educational film company in Los Angeles. Brenneis worked there as well. The two found that the philosophy behind Churchill Films—independence, in-house production and distribution, diverse sales channels, low overhead, and little debt—were prudent operating practices for life on the land, too.

Pixies might seem like an instant hit. Not quite. Introduced in the United States by the University of California at Riverside in 1965, the Pixie was intended for backyard cultivation. Early on, supermarkets weren’t interested in this small, hard-to-stack fruit because it got ripe after “tangerine season” and besides, they had never heard of it.

Brenneis credits lauded produce buyer Bill Fujimoto, who for many years ran the farm-friendly Monterey Market in North Berkeley, for taking a chance on their tiny tangerine and turning it into a big citrus success. To call the farm couple Friends of Bill is an understatement. The pair are indebted to the produce whisperer: Fujimoto bought Churchill Orchard’s entire crop of Pixies for the first six years, beginning back in 1990. As Brenneis recounts it, he single-handedly made the market for their niche produce by introducing the tangerine to top chefs and keen consumers. Chez Panisse was the farm’s first restaurant customer. The restaurant put the Pixie—and the farm—on the menu. Brenneis made a film about Fujimoto, Eat at Bill’s, a valentine to her friend and his market, back in 2007.

“How to describe Monterey Market’s impact? If you’re going to have your single played, that’s a good radio station to be on,” says Brenneis, a former bassist for the rock band The Motels. “He reached a lot of people quickly, and he was able to take our volume. It wasn’t just us: He’s done the same thing for many other small farmers starting out. He taught us so much about how to work with a retail outlet in terms of packing, sizing, supply—all of that.”

Buoyed by their Berkeley supermarket success, and blessed with bigger and bigger harvests, the farmers went in search of a wholesaler willing to take a chance on their tangerine dream. They found the right partner in Melissa’s/World Variety Produce in Los Angeles, which gets their produce out into what Brenneis calls “the straight world,” places like Ohio and Texas, beyond the California produce-buying bubble. The wholesaler buys about half their Pixie crop now.

These days, the marketing of small citrus is big business. Cuties, a type of seedless, super-sweet and easy-to-peel mandarin that strives for the Kleenex kind of brand name recognition, has become, on an acre for acre measure, the most profitable citrus in the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal. The billionaires behind that brand also made a fortune selling Fiji Water and POM Wonderful pomegranate juice.

In comparison, Brenneis and Churchill are small-scale operators in the tangerine supply chain. They’re just fine with that. The pair aren’t mass market aspirationals: They’re focused on growing unique quality crops, Brenneis, 62, tells me over a morning salad breakfast at Saul’s, where she blends in with other residents of her generation who frequent the deli. Brenneis schools me in the language of citrus: For starters, the words tangerine and mandarin are interchangeable, sales terms more than scientific names, she explains.

It wasn’t citrus that brought the farm to the Ecology Center Farmers’ Markets first. Beginning in 2012, Churchill Orchard was invited to start selling its organic avocado varieties—Fuerte, Bacon, Hass, Mexicola Grande—at the Shattuck Avenue and downtown locations. But since about 12 acres of the 17-acre Churchill Orchard are planted with citrus, it’s not surprising that their Page, Pixie, and Kishu tangerines quickly found a home at the markets, too.

Their Kishu crop has a cult following to rival Pixie fandom. The Kishu is a tiny tangerine that Brenneis refers to as the difficult child. It must be hand-picked and hand packed. It has a short season and is susceptible to weather-related challenges. The Pixie is the opposite: It has a long hang time and can withstand packing on a produce line. Still, Brenneis loves both, as do market goers.

The farmers have had to adapt over the years. “You have to have pirate blood in you to do this work this long,” says Brenneis, a founding member of the Ojai Pixie Growers Association, which represents the interests of small-scale, family-owned tangerine farmers in the region. “You’re going to contend with a lot of people who are larger than you. What does a pirate do? Takes down galleons. You don’t want to get sunk. You have to navigate around them.”

The farm was certified organic almost 10 years ago. “We could see we needed to differentiate. We were dwarfed by Cuties and Halos and the fact that there were now 40 Pixie growers. So we found a way to appeal to a specific kind of wholesaler and consumer.”

The farmers’ market serves a special niche. Brenneis wanted a way to spend more time back in Berkeley with her aging mom. A built-in customer base and personal connections helped make it a reality. “Our customers here are loyal and curious. They show up in the rain. That’s critical for winter markets,” says Brenneis. “When you set up and they come over and say ‘You’re back,’ like you’re Santa or something, you have to love that.”

Read the rest of “Pixie People” by Sarah Henry (Photos and art by Lisa Brenneis), which originally appeared on Edible East Bay in February 2016 and in their Spring 2016 issue. It’s the first in a series about the backstory behind East Bay farmers’ market vendors and their sought-after, seasonal bounty. 

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