The tastiest of this delicious and nutritious fruit is found on small, family farms
The Central Valley’s mandarin acreage grew from some 4,000 acres in 1995 to more than 31,000 in 2008 on a steady skyward trajectory of about 2,000 acres per year—and it’s not slowing down.
Nor is the usual tune of songs like this one—massive corporations constitute the bulk of the expansion. Come October, they hire large crews to hike for miles through vast orchards, picking green fruits that will last for weeks in storage and transit before, finally, brokers gas the mandarins with ethylene to prematurely induce color change, turning them into the orange orbs so cherished during the holiday months.
And then there are places like little Morse Farms. This tiny operation in Oroville is operated by John and Glennda Morse who planted four acres of Satsuma mandarins eight years ago. The Morses’ crop ripens between November and January—and it really does ripen; they allow their mandarins to turn a full and brilliant orange while on the tree, and they retail fresh-picked fruit onsite in 10-pound bags for $9.
The farm dwells at 900 feet on the foothills slopes, where cold air slips like running water into the frigid valley below, and so far the frost has not damaged the crop. “Everything is still fine,” Glennda Morse assured. But day and night the Morses watch the temperature; if it drops too near to 20 degrees, the sprinklers must go on. The water—above 32 degrees—warms the orchard while the layer of resulting ice acts as a shield against the cold.
The Morses grow only Satsuma mandarins, though many other cultivars exist, like Nova, Clementine, Fallglo, and the TDE, a hybrid of Temple Tangor, Dancy and Encore mandarins developed in 1973 at UC Riverside, where pomologists, researchers of fruit trees, still operate a strong breeding program.
Scores and scores of mandarin cultivars exist worldwide. In California, however, just a half-dozen are commercially important, and the favored variety is the Satsuma, loved for its seedlessness and demanded for its early October availability. By contrast, Tango mandarins ripen as late as April.
Chaffin Family Orchards also grows Satsuma mandarins, which occupy eight acres of the Oroville ranch’s 40 acres of citrus. The farm was founded in 1921, and its location in the “banana belt” protects against severe frosts—though not always. After the infamous December frost of 1990, the farm spent $28,000 replacing dead trees. Last week, though, the near-killing temperatures did not quite dip into the danger zone, and the farm had already sold most of its mandarin crop. So the Chaffin family was in the clear, but a long winter is yet to come.
Farther south, Pilz Produce at Hillcrest Orchard sits in the midst of a small cluster of mandarin farms in Placer County. Here owner Steve Pilz takes care to pay his workers a living wage, he says, while harvesting the fruit slowly and deliberately—one ripe fruit at a time, with each mandarin leaving the branch only after quick inspection for perfect quality.
While large operations may produce fruit at a rate of five to six boxes per hour per worker, Pilz maintains a two-box-per-hour pace. He says that the taste that comes of such care and fastidiousness can be detected in higher sugar levels and greater overall ripeness.
There may be more reason to eat mandarins than their taste. According to the results of a USDA study released last year, mandarins contain substantial amounts of synephrine, a natural decongestant. The study, conducted by Dr. Andrew P. Breksa III, Klaus Dragull and Brian Cain, focused on Owari Satsuma mandarins grown in Placer County. The scientists determined that local mandarin juice contains as much as six times the synephrine than orange juice. Moreover, they observed that synephrine concentration varied greatly from grove to grove—a sort of nutritional citric terroir.
Some 25,000 acres of mandarins grow in Kern, Tulare, Madera and Fresno counties, and by the numbers, the San Joaquin Valley is the uncontestable heart of the industry.
But the soul of the industry is an entirely different thing, and though Sacramento Valley mandarin groves constituted a dainty 304 acres in 2008, it’s here that moms and pops pick their fruits ripe and ready. It’s here that the growers hold their annual Mountain Mandarin Festival in late-November in Placer County. It’s here that workers receive living wages. It’s here that mandarin advocates welcome the presence of bees, even though cross-pollination may occasionally lead to seeded fruit.
It’s also where growers like the Morses wake up four times per night to assure that their trees aren’t freezing, and if love had a flavor, then it’s here that mandarins would taste like gold.