From the very beginning, the success of the pixie mandarin was improbable. While pixies possess unforgettable flavor, they’re also really hard to grow—much harder than many other citrus varieties. And unlike most citrus, they reach peak flavor in spring, when shoppers are thinking about asparagus, artichokes and peas. But where many farmers would have only seen risk, Friend’s Ranch saw opportunity.
“Maybe we’re half-crazy, I don’t know,” says Emily Thacher, fifth-generation grower at Friend’s, a family farm located in California’s Ojai Valley, about 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles. “But pixies taste better. And we’re all about growing for flavor.”
In the 1960s, Thacher’s grandfather, Elmer Friend, planted pixies on a whim. He first learned about them through a family friend who had started growing experimental citrus varieties developed by the University of California, Riverside, one of the nation’s top institutions for citrus research. One of those varieties was the pixie—seedless, easy to peel and remarkably sweet, with less acid than other varieties, but just enough tang to keep you coming back for more.
Unsurprisingly, they’re popular with kids. Growing up on the farm, Thacher and her brother George definitely had their fill. Thacher recalls (or seems to recall), “We literally would eat all of them and nobody ever got any—because they’re so good!” In 1970, Friend became the first farmer in Ojai to start selling pixies from his fruit stand, and they proved so popular that he planted 10 more trees. Today, there are about 240 acres of them in Ojai, and pixies are marketed nationwide.
When the first tree went in the ground, Friend couldn’t have imagined this level of success. As he knew, the researchers who had developed the pixie had their doubts about its commercial viability. The trees must grow for seven to eight years before any fruit begins to appear at all, longer than other varieties of citrus. Even more challenging: pixie trees are “alternate bearing,” which means that once they do start to bear fruit, they only bear a significant amount every other year. “This year a lot of our trees have three or four hundred pounds of fruit on them,” says Thacher. “Next year, the same trees will maybe have 10 pounds.” And like all varieties of citrus, the fruit takes an entire year to grow.
Outside of Ojai, there was also a fair amount of skepticism to overcome among potential customers, who thought that spring meant the end of citrus season—even in sunny California. But pixies are harvested from March through May (sometimes June). Thacher recalls that people would approach her family’s stand at farmers’ markets in Los Angeles, shake their heads emphatically and say, “No, no, no… tangerine season is done!” And in turn, she would respond, “No, no, no… taste these!” Slowly but surely, Friend’s built a loyal following, which is why, today, Thacher believes that folks who still think of citrus as a wintertime fruit need to start expanding their horizons.
Friend’s philosophy of growing for flavor is most apparent during harvest, when Thacher and her family taste and re-taste the fruit from every tree as the season progresses (and the fruit gets sweeter and sweeter). If it doesn’t taste good, they don’t pick it. Which leads to the truly remarkable aspect of pixies: consistency. Pick up a bag of pixies, and you’ll discover that just about every single one of them tastes equally good.
The quality of the fruit depends heavily on having the ideal climate. Pixies develop the best flavor when long, hot days are punctuated by cool nights. Even in the winter in Ojai, it’s not unusual for daytime temperatures to get up to the mid-80s, then plunge at night. That marked difference in temperature is what develops the ideal balance of sweetness and acidity.
Pixies, like any other citrus, start out as tiny green specks inside of blossoms that emerge in the spring (the same time fully grown fruits are picked). But very few actually make it through summer: only one out of every 400 blossoms turns into fruit. “When the fruits are about the size of a frozen pea, a lot of them fall off in June and that’s when the tree decides which ones it’s going to keep,” says Thacher. This is called June drop. “If there’s a bad wind or a heat wave in the early season, a lot of the fruits will drop before they’re able to mature.”
By December, the fruit will have reached picking size, but it’s still green-skinned and difficult to peel. As winter progresses and the temperature drops below 50 degrees at night, the trees reabsorb chlorophyll to conserve energy for the spring, and in turn, the fruit begins to blush orange. By March, it’s finally ripe enough to pick, and the cycle begins again.
All throughout the year, Friend’s has to take on not only the usual duties of caring for fruit trees—fertilizing, watering, pruning—but also hazards unique to California, including wind, wildfire and gophers (or a diabolical combination of all three).
Luckily, they’re not doing it alone. Today, there are about 53 farms growing pixies in the Ojai Valley. They’re small, family-run operations; the smallest one is just half an acre, while the largest is a modest 30 acres. Most are part of the cooperative that Thacher helps run, the Ojai Pixie Growers Association. It provides packing services, helps growers market their fruit and, most importantly, fosters a sense of community.
“We’re all friends and we all work together to make sure the fruit gets sold,” she says. “It’s a daunting task in a year when we have lots of fruit, but we have a lot of fun doing it.”