Ojai’s Famous Pixie Tangerine Struggles to Survive Wildfires and a Hot Real Estate Market

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The valley’s climate has been ideal for citrus, but it’s changing — getting windier, drier and hotter. A recent study showed that Ventura County’s temperature has warmed more in the last 125 years than any other county’s in the lower 48 states.

Fire and drought have caused some Ojai growers to take out orchards; farmers estimate working farmland has shrunk at least 15% over the last decade. Ventura County officials are concerned enough that they’re partnering with the local Farm Bureau and The Nature Conservancy to evaluate threatened farmland in Ojai and across the county.

Some farmers are questioning whether agriculture even has a future in the Ojai Valley.

The Ojai Pixie

The fruit this valley is best known for is the Ojai Pixie.

A man wearing a blue short sleeved shirt, a gray ballcap and a white cloth mask reaches his right hand to pull tangerines into a basket. There are wooden bins of tangerines off to his right, and tangerine boxes on a shelf over the bins. The tangerines are bright orange.
Tony Ayala sorts tangerines by size in May 2022, preparing for the weekend’s farmers markets. The former fire battalion chief says he’s seen significant changes in Ojai Valley’s weather, as the snow season has dwindled. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Pixie is one of those varieties we have a bit of lore about in Ojai,” explained Thacher, who’s a longtime farmer in the valley.

Thacher’s wife’s family began growing citrus in the Ojai Valley in the late 1800s, and its descendants operate Friend’s Ranches on 65 acres. They grow avocados and a few other crops, but the bulk of their crop is citrus — more than 50 varieties of oranges, lemons, grapefruit and tangerines.

Thacher and his wife, Anne Friend, quit their academic lives to work for her family’s farm when a 1969 flood washed out the original packinghouse. The Pixie was an experimental variety of tangerine developed by scientists at the University of California, Riverside — small, seedless and easy to peel. The folks at Friend’s Ranches had planted some but, by the early ‘80s, had just two productive trees.

“I realized early on, when our children were small, they were just cleaning the bottoms of those trees as far as they could reach,” Thacher recalled. “It looked like feral pigs had gone through the orchard. There was no fruit, but there were peels. So that’s kind of a wake-up call for a farmer.”

Across the valley, Jim Churchill, who spent much of his childhood in Ojai, had only started farming avocados a few years earlier. “I didn’t know anything about agriculture, but I grew up walking through the orange groves, and I know what a ripe citrus tastes like,” he said.

Churchill recalled visiting Friend’s Ranches one day. “I pulled something out of a bin, and I peeled it and put it in my mouth and I said, ‘Tony, what is this?’”

It was a Pixie.

“And I just thought, ‘This is what I’m going to grow,’” Churchill said.

A large man with pink skin and white hair sits in an office, wearing dark-rimmed glasses, a black and white plaid shirt and a dark green canvas jacket with a leather collar. The office shows a calendar and other papers tacked to a wood-paneled wall, and piles of full file folders on a table. Tall windows let in light from a skylight in the room beyond.
Longtime grower Tony Thacher sits in the Friend’s Ranches packinghouse office in May 2022. He says he’s not sure whether agriculture in Ojai can survive the pressures of climate change and population growth. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Churchill planted some Pixies, and Thacher planted more. Eventually, with a few other farmers, they started the Ojai Pixie Growers Association.

Commercial success took time, though. Churchill reached out to markets across the state, but couldn’t find customers. He wasn’t sure his farm was going to make it. Things finally changed in the late ’80s when Monterey Market in Berkeley, 350 miles north, took a chance on the fruit, and the pastry chef for a groundbreaking restaurant got a taste. Churchill’s voice cracked when he recalled the story.

“I could never talk about this without crying,” he said. “Lindsey Shere was the founding pastry chef at Chez Panisse, and she took Pixies and put them on the menu. And … then we were OK.”

Pixies gained credibility. Now, nearly 40 years later, Ojai Valley farmers ship up to 2 million pounds of Pixies all across the country each year.

The many costs of fire

Tony Ayala helps run the operation at Friend’s Ranches. His wife, Emily, is Tony and Anne Thacher’s daughter. At their packinghouse, he classified fruit by size, getting ready for the weekend farmers markets. His hands were busy sorting tangerines as he talked about changes in Ojai’s weather.

“Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, every year there would be snow in these mountains, and there would be snow for weeks on end,” said Ayala. “Now, if it snows, it lasts maybe until noon, if that.”

The biggest difference for him was something he witnessed over the course of his first career, the 25 years he spent as a firefighter and battalion chief. “The winter was the time to get a lot of training done. You didn’t have to worry about fire,” he said. But the Thomas Fire, in 2017, started on December 3. “That’s one of the biggest fires we’ve had. In December!”

Thick golden yellow smoke clogs the sky over a dark mountain in the background, where a line of fire is visible in the distance. In the middle distance and foreground is the main street of a town, framed on the left and right by dark green trees and white buildings. On the right is a tall building with a tower. On the left are low buildings. The middle of the picture shows cars moving in both directions with headlights on.
Downtown Ojai was blanketed in smoke during the December wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, that raged in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in December 2017. (Stephanie O’Neill)

The Thomas Fire caused an estimated $170 million in damages to Ventura County’s agriculture industries. At Friend’s Ranches, flames came right over the metal building housing the packing machinery. They lost 3.5 acres of tangerines and avocados, but Ayala considers himself lucky.

“Citrus trees don’t carry fire very well, and this whole valley is citrus,” he said. “That’s what basically saved us.”

But, Ayala explained, the impact of the Thomas Fire continued even after the flames were extinguished. “The smoke was here for so long that it did affect the trees,” he said. Fruit was covered in layers of ash, and gasses in the smoke made fruit mature faster and drop. Much of it was ruined. Tony’s wife, Emily Thacher Ayala, tried to sell some at a discount at a farmers market. As a joke, she labeled some completely burned fruit as “Thomas Fire Specialty Tangerines.”

Tony Ayala walked outside the packinghouse to point out another way fire can hurt crops: erosion. When a hillside burns, there is nothing to hold the soil in place. After the Thomas Fire, a big rain started a slide, and mud buried the trunks of more than an acre of trees. “We lost a bunch of trees down there because it gets up so high, it just kills them,” he said.



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