Ojai Produce: Stone Fruits – A Profile With Ojai Grower Camille Sears
By Jim Churchill
Ojai did not begin its agricultural life as a citrus growing community. Before citrus there was stone fruit. We all know this because we wait each year to see if K.B. Hall’s Upper Ojai apricots survive into summer. In an echo of that time, Camille Sears and her family have planted one of the most interesting orchards in town, and this summer Ojai residents can sample her wares at The Farmer and The Cook and the Ojai Farmer’s Market.
Camille is a meteorologist. Growing up in Meiners Oaks, she used to bike and drive around the Valley during weather events collecting data: how cold did it get, how much rain fell. Until the trees grow up, she finances her organic ag habit by serving as an expert witness in environmental pollution lawsuits. The brain which makes her such an effective expert witness – the memory for numbers, the ability to see their patterns and understand their implications – is the same head that caused her to notice many years ago that a property on Lomita Avenue (then a citrus orchard), was the coldest property in Meiners Oaks. Cold would be good for stone fruit.
In 1996 Camille bought the 8-acre property. It was covered with feral valencias, abandoned after the 1990 freeze. She planned an elaborate orchard to service a fruit CSA which existed only in her head: 3 varieties of Asian pears, 5 varieties of plums, 9 varieties of peaches, 5 varieties of nectarines, 6 varieties of apricots, 4 varieties of pluots – 470 stone fruit trees in all (Pluots? Yes, pluots: an interspecific hybrid between plums and apricots). The different varieties would ripen more or less sequentially; she would be able to sell small quantities of fruit over the season direct to consumers.
Upon purchasing the property, Camille had the valencias, long starved for water, knocked over and ground up. A meteorologist specializing in environmental pollutants, she didn’t want to burn them. She planted cover crops – bell beans and vetch and other sources of organic matter and nitrogen that she tilled into the soil for two years prior to planting to build soil organic matter. Since the previous orchard had been abandoned, she was able to qualify the land for organic right away. She planted her stone fruit in the spring of 1998; that year, the cover crop of bell beans, vetch, rapeseed, and peas grew so tall you couldn’t see the trees at all. Now she uses shorter-growing berseem clover or lana vetch to keep from burying the trees.
Camille studied meteorology at U.C. Davis, coincidentally a great Ag school. As a grad student she was a teaching assistant not only in meteorology but also in plant science, where she met the folks who tend the nation’s fig germplasm repository. Sicilian on her mother’s side, as a child she fell in love with the huge fig trees that bracketed her grandparents home in Messina. Through a lifelong collection and from her friends at Davis, she now grows about 75 varieties of figs, one of the great Mediterranean fruits. She also has lined the fence along the north and east sides of the orchard with Italian bay laurel trees, interset with herbs, palms, and climbing roses.
In the warmer north end of the orchard, taking early note of the tangerine tendency in the Ojai Valley, Camille has planted tangerines: pixies, seedless kishus, and gold nuggets.
Twists of fate have so far prevented her from forming the fruit CSA that originally informed her vision of the stone fruit orchard. Her property is zoned Rural, not Ag, so she cannot have a permanent farmstand (not that she would have time to run a stand anyway). The apparent absolute need of Ojai youth-with-cars to exorcise testosterone build-up by driving donuts in the mud has forced her to put up a fence. She has learned that some stone fruit varieties are better for her than others: they have better flavor, they yield and hold better. Of the stone fruit, the pluot varieties Flavor Queen and Flavor King are her favorites. Peaches and apricots, although wonderful, ripen and fall off the trees if the borers don’t get them first (stone fruit are as attractive to insects and birds as they are to us; being an organic stone fruit grower is a challenge and an exercise in frustration). The pluots hold and ship better. Her current plan is to end up with 720 tangerine and 300 pluot trees, with fruit that can be sold locally and regionally; the rest of the stone fruit will be solely for local markets.
You can find Camille’s summer bounty at The Farmer and The Cook in Meiners Oaks, and at the Full Circle organic stand at the Ojai Farmers Market on Sundays (if they get the certificate requirements worked out). For more information on how to find her fruit, you can email her at: email@example.com