A little 'Pixie magic'
March/April 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Tracy Sellers, Photos by Paolo Vescia
How some family farmers turned a backyard fruit into a national success.
The pint-size Pixie tangerine is perfect for pint-size people like Oliver Ayala because it's seedless, easy to peel and sugary sweet. Oliver's family grows the fruit on their ranch in the Ventura County town of Ojai.
You just never know what's going to spark a great idea. For Jim Churchill, it was a trip back to his hometown.
Accessible only by a twisty ride through the mountains east of Santa Barbara, Ojai has long been a secluded oasis full of agriculture. The village, pronounced "oh-high," always held a special significance to Churchill. But when he returned in 1978 after a big-city career, he found his family farm in dire straits. Struggling to make a profit from an avocado variety that had fallen out of favor, Churchill decided he needed to make a change or get out altogether. As luck would have it, he stumbled upon an idea in an unlikely place.
"I was kind of wandering the valley scratching my head and I was actually over at my friend Tony Thacher's place, Friend's Ranch, in the packing shed," Churchill remembered. "I just reached into a bin, picked up something, peeled it and I put this thing in my mouth. I asked Tony what it was and he said, 'That's a Pixie tangerine.'"
Once Churchill sank his teeth into the sugary fruit, he was convinced he had found a crop that could save his farm.
The Ojai Pixie tangerine has gone from relative obscurity to widespread popularity, thanks to the faith and commitment of local farmers including Emily Thacher-Ayala, left, and her father, Tony Thacher. Today about 40 farms in Ojai grow the fruit.
"Really, that was it for me. If you had been there, you would have seen a light bulb over my head. I was like, 'Whoa! This is it!'"
Churchill asked Thacher if he sold the fruit. His friend answered that he had only a few trees and added that by the time he was done picking his other varieties of tangerines each year, his kids had eaten all the Pixies. Thacher had always considered the pint-size citrus more of a "backyard fruit" than a commercial crop.
Developed in 1927 by the University of California, Riverside, the Pixie tangerine was released for production in 1965 with somewhat low expectations. The seedless variety was a result of open pollination of Kincy mandarins. (Kincys are a hybrid between a King mandarin and a Dancy tangerine.) The Pixie was runty and pale, and consumers seemed to overlook it in favor of larger, brighter citrus. Also, its production was a little fussy, turning out bland-tasting fruit in some areas and yielding a decent crop only every other year.
But with Churchill's intuition and Thacher's determination, the two came up with a plan: They would work together to grow and market the tiny tangerine in the citrus-growing town of Ojai. They figured they had a lot going for them. Both had rich soil on their farmland and the climate seemed perfect—warm days and cool nights in the fall help the fruit mature. Most of all, they had a strong desire to see their favorite little fruit succeed.
At first glance, the two were an unlikely match. Churchill is an energetic, funny, brainy guy who worked in film production before returning to his hometown. Thacher is a quiet, but friendly man who has spent much of his life in agriculture, including managing his wife's century-old family farm since 1988.
After discussing the possibilities of the Pixie, Churchill and Thacher believed wholeheartedly that they had something special on their hands. So they set out on a grassroots campaign to get the fruit into people's mouths, one slice at a time. They traveled up and down the state, trying to sell the fruit at markets, stores, restaurants and to anybody else willing to try it. They believed their best marketing effort lay in the very fruit they were growing. Quite simply, the Pixie spoke for itself.
The Thacher/Ayala family loads up the truck for a trip to the Ojai Certified Farmers Market: from left, Tony Ayala, Emily Thacher-Ayala, their son Oliver and Emily's father, Tony Thacher. (Yes, there are two Tonys in the family!)
"Retailers initially resisted them because they didn't get ripe during the traditional tangerine season, which is typically November through January," Churchill recalled, adding that Pixie season is typically March through June. "Also, Pixies are small and just didn't always look pretty."
At first, growers of Ojai Pixie tangerines had trouble marketing their fruit because of its small size and bumpy, uneven skin. But farmers market customers soon learned that it's what's inside that counts.
With bumpy, uneven skin, the Pixie isn't as aesthetically pleasing as some citrus. But as Churchill and Thacher discovered, it's what's inside that counts.
"We needed to have some method of making the public aware of what they were buying, where it's from and who's farming it," said Thacher. "We believed in what we're selling 100 percent, and the key was getting buyers to believe, too."
They eventually did find quite a following—through direct sales. In an effort to get the fruit to the people, Thacher and his daughter, Emily Thacher-Ayala, began selling at farmers markets across Southern California. The woman who also answers to the nickname "Pixie Chick" said she never imagined that the fruit she ate off her father's trees as a child would catch on like it has.
"Kids absolutely love it because it's easy to peel, seedless and it's sugary sweet," she said. "Not everyone has tried one, but everyone who stops at our booth and does try one is hooked."
When the avocado variety they were growing became increasingly unprofitable, Jim Churchill and Lisa Brenneis decided to take a gamble on Pixie tangerines. Today the husband-and-wife team has about 1,000 Pixie trees. They still grow some avocados, but, as Churchill puts it, "the big bet is on Pixies."
One such convert is chef Jamie West. The California native oversees the culinary operation of four restaurants at the nearby Ojai Valley Inn & Spa and says his cuisine is "inspired by the bounty and driven by the season."
"When I cook, I focus on two things: the freshest ingredients and layers of flavor that complement and enhance each other," said West. "The Pixie is absolutely perfect for both."
In addition to being a fixture in the resort's kitchen, the Pixie has also found a home in the spa through their popular Pixie Tangerine Body Scrub.
"Pixie tangerines are high in vitamin C, which cleanses and hydrates the skin and stimulates healthy cell growth," said Veronica Cole, the spa's public relations manager. "The scrub is usually available from March through June when the Pixie tangerines are harvested locally."
Sharing their story of the Pixie tangerine not only inspired farmers market customers, spa goers and chefs, but also other farmers as well. The Churchill and Thacher families combined with other farming families in Ojai interested in growing the fruit and together they formed the Ojai Pixie Growers Association. Today at 41 farms strong, the group tries to gather once a month at the local coffee shop to share information about the finicky fruit—everything from pruning, fertilizing and harvesting to selling and cooking.
Heading most of the meetings are Churchill, Thacher and Thacher-Ayala, who all take great pride in growing the citrus fruit and also in bringing together such a diverse group of people.
"We all hold different views, whether it's in politics, religion or world events, but we can all come together to farm," said Thacher-Ayala. "We all just want to grow fruit and keep agriculture in our small valley."
About 145 acres are now devoted to Pixies in Ojai. And if estimates hold up, this year farmers will have a 1.6 million-pound crop, one of their largest on record. And they're still finding fans everywhere—selling to several restaurants, stores, distributors and, most recently, a baseball stadium.
"One of our distributors, Melissa's Produce, came up with the idea to start selling them during baseball games at Yankee Stadium," said Churchill. "We thought, the little Pixie in the Big Apple? How perfect!"
Now during the baseball season, the Pixies will be sold at fruit carts throughout the stadium. Farmers are hopeful the fruit will be a home run for fans.
"I just think it's cool being in the citrus industry and having people across the country recognize the name Ojai Pixie tangerine," said Thacher-Ayala. "Especially, since I grew up with Pixies, it's fun for me to create a new generation of Pixie eaters out there."
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, visit www.pixietangerine.com.