March 19, 2013
Hannah Guzik, OVN correspondent
Despite a January freeze that could have wreaked havoc with their crop, Ojai growers are set to harvest a record 2.75-million pounds of Pixie tangerines.
Only about 10 percent of the crop was damaged in the four-night freeze, much less than growers initially feared, according to the Ojai Pixie Growers Association.
“It’s not as bad at all as we thought it might be,” said Emily Ayala, association member and secretary. “The only damage was from orchards at the bottom of the valley that always experience frost damage and probably shouldn’t be growing tangerines, because they’re more sensitive to frost than say, oranges, which are bigger.”
Three growers have frost-bitten fruit and may see losses this year, she said. The association as a whole should see a profit, although it’s too soon to say how much money the record harvest will yield because prices are still fluctuating, Ayala added.
“It’s a little bit hard to tell,” she said. “So far the tangerine market has been wonderful — we’ve been picking and selling as fast as we can and we’ve sold more faster this year.”
The association has been selling fruit for the past three weeks, but still has about nine weeks left in the season, Ayala said. Typically prices start out high, and then are deflated by an influx of less expensive tangerines from South America, she said.
“What happens is that the big grocery stories have already contracted with South American tangerine growers, and, in mid May or June, they get shipments and they quit buying from us,” Ayala said. “There’s not much we can do about, it’s just the way of world economics.”
Ojai has about 400 acres of tangerine trees and the tangerine crop brings about $2 million to the valley annually, according to the association.
The valley’s hot summer last year, with its string of days where temperatures reached above 100 degrees, resulted in a high-sweetness level in this crop of fruit, making it especially tasty, Ayala said.
“They’re just the size of marbles on the trees in the summer, but the heat really helps,” she said.
The fluctuation of temperatures this winter, including the cold snap, may have also helped develop and improve the flavor of the tangerines, she said.
The association has hired a Fillmore labor contractor to coordinate picking the tangerines, and is employing between 12 and 14 people full-time for 10 weeks.
“We have a very good relationship with (the labor contractor) and we’ve been working with them for years,” Ayala said.
This year, in addition to picking, the workers are also pruning the orchards afterward, she said.
Association member Jim Churchill, who grows tangerines and avocados on 17 acres in Ojai’s East End with his wife, Lisa Brenneis, said he’s thankful the cold snap didn’t result in significant losses.
“They’ve started picking and we did not have any frost damage to our Pixies,” he said.