Is the Ojai Pixie dust?

An ideal climate made California's Ojai Valley a citrus-growing icon. But that climate is changing, and farmers are worried about the future of agriculture in the valley.

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Tony Ayala sorts tangerines by size, preparing for the weekend’s farmers markets. The former fire battalion chief says he’s seen significant changes in Ojai Valley’s weather. Photo by Lisa Morehouse.

Ojai, California, has a charming main street, with tile roofs and Spanish-revival architecture. On weekends, crowds of the bohemian chic spill out of restaurants, boutiques and art galleries. 

The Ojai Valley is surrounded by mountains, and as long-time resident Tony Thacher explains, “Starting in the 1800s, people who could afford to would come out from the East and winter here.” The town has hosted a tennis tournament since the 1880s, a music festival since the 1940s, and has drawn seekers to its spiritual centers and schools for over a century.

“It served as a getaway for people from L.A. and Hollywood over the years,” says Thacher. 

Ojai also drew farmers. The town is surrounded by orchards, some olive and avocado but mostly citrus. Ojai’s ag production numbers can’t compare with other parts of Ventura County — the Oxnard Plain and the Santa Clara River Valley — but it’s iconic among citrus lovers, known for producing high-quality Valencia oranges, originally, and more recently the Ojai Pixie tangerine. Most orchards are family-owned, and individual plots are small, 40 acres or fewer.

The valley’s climate has been ideal for citrus, but that climate is changing—getting windier, drier, and hotter. A recent study showed that Ventura County’s temperature has warmed more in the last 125 years than any other county in the lower 48 states. The corresponding rise of wildfires and drought has caused some Ojai growers to fallow orchards; farmers estimate at least 15 percent fewer acres in production now than a decade ago. County officials are concerned enough that they’re partnering with the local Farm Bureau and the Nature Conservancy to evaluate threatened farmland in Ojai and across the county.  

Some farmers are questioning whether agriculture even has a future in the Ojai Valley. 

The rise of the Pixie

The fruit this valley is best-known for is the Ojai Pixie. “Pixie is one of those varieties we have a bit of lore about in Ojai,” says Tony Thacher.

The Friend family began growing citrus in the Ojai Valley in the late 1800s, and its descendants operate Friend’s Ranches on 65 acres. They grow avocados and a few other crops, but the bulk of their work is in citrus — more than 50 varieties of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and tangerines. 

Long-time grower Tony Thacher in the Friend’s Ranches packinghouse office. His family got serious about growing Pixies when his small children cleaned their two trees of the fruit. ‘It looked like feral pigs had gone through the orchard.’ Photo by Lisa Morehouse.

Anne Friend married Thacher, and when the 1969 flood washed out the original packing house, the two quit their academic lives to work for her family’s farm, which was growing avocados, Valencia and navel oranges, and Dancy tangerines. The Pixie was an experimental variety of tangerine developed by scientists at the University of California, Riverside — small, seedless and easy to peel — and it had a late season. The folks at Friend’s Ranches had planted some, but by the early ’80s, there were just two productive trees.

“I realized early on, when our children were small, they were just cleaning the bottoms of those trees as far as they could reach,” Thacher recalls. “It looked like feral pigs had gone through the orchard. There was no fruit, but there were peels. So that’s kind of a wakeup call for a farmer.”

Across the valley, Jim Churchill, who spent much of his childhood in Ojai, had only started farming avocados a few years earlier. “I didn’t know anything about agriculture, but I grew up walking through the orange groves, and I know what a ripe citrus tastes like.” 

Churchill visited Friend’s Ranches one day. “I pulled something out of a bin, and I peeled it and put it in my mouth and said, ‘Tony, what is this?’”

It was a Pixie. 

“And I just thought, ‘This is what I’m going to grow.’”

Churchill planted some Pixies, and Thacher planted more. Eventually, with a few other farmers, they started the Ojai Pixie Growers Association. 

Commercial success took time, though. Churchill says he reached out to markets across the state, but couldn’t find customers. He wasn’t sure his farm was going to make it. Things finally changed in the late ’80s when Monterey Market in Berkeley, 350 miles north, took a chance on the fruit, and the pastry chef for a groundbreaking restaurant got a taste. Churchill’s voice cracks when he recalls the story.

“I could never talk about this without crying,” he says. “Lindsey Shere was the founding pastry chef at Chez Panisse, and she took Pixies and put them on the menu. And … then we were okay.”

Pixies gained credibility. Now, nearly 40 years later, Ojai Valley farmers ship up to 2 million pounds of Pixies all across the country each year. 

The many costs of fire

Tony Ayala married Tony and Anne Thacher’s daughter, Emily, and helps run the operation at Friend’s Ranches. At their packing house, he’s sorting tangerines by size, getting ready for the weekend farmers’ markets. While he works, he talks about changes in Ojai’s weather. 

“Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, every year there would be snow in these mountains, and there would be snow for weeks on end,” he says. “Now, if it snows, it lasts maybe until noon, if that.”

He says the biggest difference for him was something he witnessed over the course of his first career, the 25 years he spent as a firefighter and battalion chief. “The winter was the time to get a lot of training done. You didn’t have to worry about fire,” he says. But the Thomas Fire, in 2017, started on December 3rd. “That’s one of the biggest fires we’ve had. In December!”

The Thomas Fire caused an estimated $170 million in damages to Ventura County’s agriculture industries. At Friend’s Ranches, flames came right over the metal building housing the packing machinery. They lost 3.5 acres of tangerines and avocados, but Ayala considers them lucky.

“Citrus trees don’t carry fire very well, and this whole valley is citrus,” he says. “That’s what basically saved us.”

But, Ayala explains, the impact of the Thomas Fire continued even after the flames were extinguished. “The smoke was here for so long that it did affect the trees,” he says. Fruit was covered in layers of ash, and gasses in the smoke made fruit mature faster and drop. Much of it was ruined. Tony’s wife, Emily Thacher Ayala, tried to sell some at a discount at farmers’ markets, and as a joke labeled some completely burned fruit as “Thomas Fire Specialty Tangerines.” 

Ayala walks outside the packing house to point out another way fire can hurt crops— erosion. When a hillside burns, there is nothing to hold the soil in place. After the Thomas Fire, a big rain started a slide, and mud buried the trunks of more than an acre of trees. “We lost a bunch of trees down there because it gets up so high, it just kills them,” he says.

On his organic orchard, Jim Churchill picks the last of the season’s Pixies. Photo by Lisa Morehouse.

The problems didn’t stop there. Ash and fine silt hardened in creeks, and stopped water from percolating down into the soil and recharging the aquifer that many farms here rely on for irrigation.

Then there’s the impact on infrastructure. Water lines burned, plastic irrigation lines melted, power lines were destroyed. “We didn’t have power here for weeks,” Ayala says, which meant they lost coolers full of juice and had to borrow a heavy-duty generator to run a pump to irrigate their thirsty trees.

“Because that’s a must. They’re not going to wait.”

A crisis worse than fire

At his 15-acre organic orchard, Jim Churchill is up on a ladder, picking the last of the season’s Pixies. They and kishu tangerines and avocados make up the bulk of his crops; he’s also experimenting with a fruit called oroblanco, a cross between a pomelo and grapefruit. 

With wildfire and other signs of climate change affecting this valley, drought is Churchill’s primary worry. “All the water that anybody has in the Ojai Valley, whether it’s from their own well, from Lake Casitas [the local reservoir] or one of the little mutual water companies, it all comes from the sky,” he says.  

Unlike other farmers in the state, Ojai farmers are not currently connected to state or federal water projects, though there are some plans in the works to change that. They’ve historically been able to manage the water they had, even forming a local groundwater management agency decades ago. And pumping water up into these mountains from the closest connection point would be logistically difficult, and expensive. 

Because of drought conditions, farmers who rely on Lake Casitas for water have seen restrictions since the 1980s; recently, most have had to cut back 30 percent from their 2012-2013 usage. But orchards aren’t like row crops – like strawberries or lettuce – that are planted each year. It takes three to four years before a tangerine or avocado tree will bear fruit a farmer can sell. So farmers take a big financial hit when they have to rip out their trees. Churchill says some of his neighbors have dug up sections of their orchards to use less water. Friend’s Ranches removed Valencias and didn’t replant some sections after the Thomas Fire. They’re farming 15 percent fewer acres than they were before the drought and the Thomas Fire. 

Churchill says he’s tried to avoid drastic measures. “We didn’t do wholesale removal, but we took out some trees, things that just weren’t productive or things that died, we didn’t replace,” he says.

For the past 20 years, Churchill’s also been mulching, building nutrients in his soil and keeping trees cool in the heat. An orchard with a bare floor absorbs more heat from the sun than one covered in mulch, he says. “And it’s good for runoff. We don’t have any runoff from this farm,” he says.

Churchill uses water-saving mini-sprinklers and even installed monitors throughout his orchard to measure exactly how much moisture leaves are releasing into the air.

“When it tells me that an inch of water has been drawn down from a particular irrigation block, then I apply an inch of water.”

Avocado trees basically shut down if the temperature goes above 95 or 100 degrees. One farmer told me that during a heat wave, avocados trees dropped so much fruit it sounded like rain. Churchill and his partner obsess over the weather, and irrigate ahead of a heat spike to keep trees cooler.

They check each irrigation line for problems every time they turn one on. “Looking for blockages and leaks, because there’s always something,” he says. “A coyote will grab a hose, or some crud gets in a line. We are very careful.” 

Housing hotspot

On a drive, Jim Churchill points out an orchard full of dead or dying trees. “He just turned off the water,” Churchill says of the farmer who owns the land.  “Wasn’t worth it to him.”

Churchill stops at a vista point overlooking the Ojai Valley, with the Topatopa Mountains in the far distance. It’s clear why this view was a stand-in for Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s film Lost Horizons

But Churchill sees what an out-of-towner can’t. “Look at that dead patch in that olive orchard,” he says. Then he points to another area, this one next to a grove of Valencia oranges. “They just took that orchard out. People have been abandoning orchards because they don’t pay. And also new people are buying them who aren’t farmers.”

Ojai is a hotspot in more ways than one. Temperatures are rising, yes, but so are real estate prices. This valley has been a destination for decades, but, Churchill says, “In the last three or four years, everybody wants to live in Ojai, it seems like.”

At a local business, a hint of the development pressure in the Ojai Valley. Photo by Lisa Morehouse.

People with a lot of money, from industries like tech and entertainment. “They’re buying ten acres, so all of a sudden, they have a whole bunch of lemons or a whole bunch of oranges,” he says.

Back at the warehouse on Churchill’s orchard, he explains the pressure of having more wealthy people move into ag land.

“Well, it raises the price for people that live here. If you own property, you’re fine. And if you don’t own property, you just can’t afford to live here anymore,” he says. “So the texture and flavor of the town is very different than it has been. And I know this is happening all over the United States, but it’s particularly intense here.”

Which puts Churchill in a funny situation. He’s 75, and his orchard is on land that’s probably worth a lot. “I have money as long as I keep working. And I am reluctant to sell the land to the people that could buy it from me. And I haven’t got a solution for that.”

Neither does his old friend Tony Thacher. He’s 81.

“You know, being an old man, I’m reasonably pessimistic that agriculture may not survive in Ojai,” he says.

Thacher sees the irony in what he says next.

“We sold one piece of property. What did we do with that money? Well, we went and bought two rental units,” he says with a sad laugh, noting that it was money that didn’t go back into agriculture in the Ojai Valley.

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