Ojai - A Grower's Paradise
Whenever two food growers meet for the first time, the conversation will inevitably begin with this simple question: What are you growing? This is true for backyard and balcony gardeners, small family farmers, and owners of giant operations measured in square miles. And while this may be an oversimplification, it seems to me that most growers fall into two broad groups – those who plant as many different crops as they possibly can, and those who focus on one or two main products.
By nature, small gardens tend to include an abundance of variety. Who can browse the annual seed catalogs and not be enticed by the thousands of options presented there? I couldn’t. Growing up, I spent hundreds of hours glued to Gurney’s seed catalogs, dreaming of gardens that would include nearly every flower and vegetable that the friendly folks in Yankton, South Dakota, could provide. It didn’t matter that my growing space was very limited; I was hopelessly infected with the diversity bug that afflicts so many gardeners.
And being raised in Ojai’s favorable climate only fueled this disorder. Few places on our planet have conditions that allow so many different crops to flourish as they do here. Summer and winter vegetables, citrus, avocados, stone fruits, apples, pears, walnuts, pomegranates, figs, olives, lavender and other herbs, and even subtropicals like cherimoya and sapote are found thriving in Ojai. From a grower’s standpoint, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. I sometimes wonder: By what restraint do certain people plant only one crop?
I’ve been fortunate to have my hands in Ojai’s soil for most of my life. And even though I was nestled in this gardener’s paradise, I sometimes dreamed of places that offered specific growing conditions not found here. In my 20s, a decade in which I was nearly obsessed with winemaking, I explored the possibility of growing vineyards in Yamhill County, Oregon, or in the Santa Rita Hills east of Lompoc. And after the December 1990 freeze leveled our bananas and papayas, my family cautiously listened to my ideas of relocating to warmer and wetter climes. With not-so-hidden rolling eyes, they entertained my search for farmland near Brisbane, Australia, and later, Hilo, Hawaii. In the end, however, I came to realize that we were already in one of the most favorable growing places on earth. Besides, we could always buy an Oregon pinot noir or a bunch of bananas, right?
And so, in 1996, we purchased a dilapidated local orange orchard, moving us from backyard gardeners into the family farmer category. After clearing the land, chipping up the old trees, and planting cover crops, we were faced with this question: What can we grow?
The short answer is: Just about anything. And this presents a problem for people like me, who can’t seem to focus on one or two single crops. In writing this, I realize that in the past year we grew over 150 different varieties – mostly tree fruits. Yes, I know how much easier life would be if I planted a monocrop orchard. Cultural practices, harvesting, and marketing would be effortless compared to the way we do it now. But if we are to discover the best cultivars for Ojai, experiments with diversity are essential. That’s my logical rationale anyway; the drive to grow “just about anything” is still there.
Although most local growers focus on orchards today, Ojai was once home to more row-crop farms. A few years ago, as I was weeding our orchard nearest the road, an elderly gentleman stopped his car and came to talk with me. He told me that when he was a child, this was a wonderful tomato field. This makes sense, as Ojai’s summers are relatively warm, and we have a long frost-free period. Summer annuals are sure to grow well here, especially if the heat-loving crops such at tomatoes, peppers, and melons are planted in early summer, after our May gray and June gloom have left us. For instance, I try to delay seeding melons until June 10, to take advantage of the 100 warmest days in our summer.
But it’s the wide range of fruit tree possibilities that makes our area remarkable. I can’t think of a better place anywhere to grow an almost unlimited variety of fruits. It’s not much of a stretch to say that we can grow just about any citrus and stone fruit, and many subtropicals. In poring over the hundreds of citrus acquisitions archived at UC Riverside, and the thousands of deciduous fruit tree specimens grown by UC Davis, I never feel limited by our climate on what we can grow.
This is because Ojai is uniquely situated. In most years, we get nearly the same winter chill as Santa Ynez, which allows our stone fruit to thrive. Our winter low temperatures are sufficiently cold to grow all but the highest-chill deciduous fruit trees. On the other hand, we are south of the Transverse Range, in an area providing nearly ideal conditions for citrus. True, most growers protect their citrus trees at least a few nights each winter. But in most years, no protection is really necessary. There are thousands of backyard trees, and numerous orchards, that prosper without any frost control measures. The downside, of course, is a risk to the citrus harvest when that periodic hard freeze visits.
Freezing weather aside, this is truly fruit tree grower paradise. And if one is fortunate to have both valley floor and hillside growing conditions, the possibilities are even greater. On the surrounding hillside slopes, nighttime lows are considerably warmer than the valley floor where the cold air drainage settles. On cold nights, I’ve measured 40-degree temperatures on Saddle Mountain while it was 23 degrees on Creek Road, only a few hundred feet directly below. The warmer nights in elevated terrain means that one can grow more tender avocados, like the Hass variety, as well as many subtropicals. There is a trade-off, however, as the hillsides and slopes tend to have poorer soils than the valley floor.
These principles were well known to a family friend, Mr. Peirano, whose ranch was located across the entrance to Lake Casitas. By taking advantage of the various microclimates on his land, he grew many kinds of fruits and vegetables. His farm and house are now gone, although remnants of his place still remain. About 10 years ago, I was given permission by the Casitas Municipal Water District to go to his old homesite and collect whatever plant material I could find. Guided by fading memories of the orchards and gardens, I walked the land from top to bottom. At the lowest (and coldest) parts of his property, there were cactus pears and grapevines. Along the road up the hill were apricot and pomegranate trees. Up higher, I found avocado and sapote trees. And this is only a fraction of what Mr. Peirano once grew – everything else (including his figs and citrus) was removed. Joyously, I came home with scion and budwood from his apricots, pomegranates, and grapes. I passed over the cactus pears (it’s a long story, involving my tongue and a pair of tweezers). Even I have limits.
And while our orchards are on the valley floor, we grow roughly half citrus and half deciduous fruit trees. In most years we have plenty of chill for our apricots, plums, pluots, peaches, and nectarines, while staying just above the cold-damage limit for citrus. In all honesty, I believe that much of the Ojai Valley is better suited to stone fruits than citrus. With lower water and nutrient demands, and fewer concerns about freezes, deciduous fruit trees are a natural for Ojai.
But there is much more than just being able to grow food crops. Variety or mass production without quality is futile in our demanding marketplace. Thankfully, Ojai’s climate allows us to grow a huge variety of fruits, and with outstanding quality across the board. Ojai’s warm summer days and cool nights, and resultant large swings in daily temperatures, tend to create fruits with a wonderful sugar-acid balance not usually seen in areas with hot days and warm nights. This is something that wine grape growers have known for centuries. For example, if the same cabernet grape cultivar is grown in a place with warm summer days and cool nights, such as Paso Robles, and a place with both warm days and nights, such as the Central Valley, the sugar-acid balance and character of the wines will be completely different. This is an illustration of terroir, that quality of wines attributable to the conditions where they are grown. The terroir factor also applies to fruits such as apricots, plums, peaches, and yes, citrus.
The key is to match the right varieties to the place where they are grown. In Ojai, some citrus growers have been true pioneers, experimenting with the Pixie tangerine when most farmers ignored it. Our climate and geography produces Pixies that have favorable size, color, rind conditions, sweetness, and acidity that have not been duplicated elsewhere. And Pixies are just the beginning. Identifying more varieties that exhibit outstanding and unique local qualities is essential to bringing recognition to Ojai’s crops, and making them stand out amongst the competition.
As our farm grows out of its infancy, I see our collection of crops evolving into fewer varieties based on the best selections. This is part of the learning process, as some varieties are simply better suited to our place than others. No matter how hard I try, our Noir des Carmes or Prescott Fond Blanc melons will never be as sweet and flavorful as our Petit Gris de Rennes. Our Santa Rosa, Shiro, and Burbank plums, while very good, can’t compare with our Larodas. And it’s more than just sweetness. Our Flavor Queen pluots, even at 26 Brix (about 26% sugar), have a hint of acidity to them. But are the fruits better tasting or more identifiable at 23 Brix, with somewhat more acid? I’m slowly discovering that harvesting and marketing are just as important as growing the right varieties.
Ojai growers know that our citrus and other fruits are unbeatable for color, flavor, and other qualities. But how do we convey this to the general public? How does Ojai, with myriad crop options and limited growing area, become known for what we grow? We can start by identifying Ojai as a unique growing region, in both geography and climate. The rest will take time – Ojai’s agricultural experience is limited compared to most parts of the world. After a few more generations of experimentation, we will certainly know more about what does best here, and how to coax every nuance out of our harvests.
Others may disagree with me, but I think the ultimate goal of a grower, on any scale, is to go beyond quality and to capture the essence of place in the crops we harvest. If we’re persistent, we can bring out the unique characteristics of the fruits we raise – the flavors, textures, and fragrances that are enhanced by our local climate and setting. We should strive to grow produce that will remind those eating it that, without a doubt, it comes from Ojai. In other words, it must not only look and taste great; the crop should also reflect the terroir of this place.
I believe that capturing a quantifiable local influence in the food we grow is an important, yet attainable task. But there’s more to Ojai than we can possibly measure. When I walk our orchards, and sense the sheltering mountains that surround us, it’s hard not to be charmed by this valley. And on certain evenings, after Vespers and Mass at St. Joseph’s, I’m inexplicably drawn to the surrounding East End orange orchards, where the light, smells, and lingering memory of the Angelus bells seem to magnify this enchantment. I wish there were some way to convey this essential quality of Ojai to others, through our crops.