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The Pixie Tangerine: The Origin Myth (according to Churchill)

Jim Churchill writes: My dad planted bacon variety avocados in 1974; by 1979 the market for bacons had begun to disappear as the avocado industry decided hass were altogether a superior product, and also our orchard had a root rot infection that was killing the trees. So I went looking for a citrus crop that I could grow and sell myself.

One day over at Friends' Ranches packing house, gossiping with Tony Thacher and idly picking pieces of fruit out of bins and eating them, I picked up an amazing tangerine.

"Tony", I said, "what is this?"

"It's a pixie tangerine."

"Do you sell them?"

"I only have two trees, and every year by the time I'm done selling my dancies my kids have always eaten all of the pixies."

If you had been there you would have seen the lightbulb appear in a thought-balloon above my head. Sweet. Seedless. Easy to peel. Kids like 'em. I bet I can sell 'em.

I went out looking for budwood, had 80 trees grown, took out some sick and sorry bacon avocados, and planted the pixies. I got so excited that I went and had the nursery grow another 250 trees, but my father said, "Son, you don't know how you're going to sell that fruit. I think you ought to wait til you know you can sell the fruit before you plant any more trees." So Tony Thacher took the trees off my hands, and that's how Tony and I embarked on growing pixies commercially.

In 1988 we sold our first crop, to Monterey Market in Berkeley, California. Thanks to the support of Bill Fujimoto of Monterey Market, we developed a following for pixies in the Bay Area, which we've been able to leverage into nationwide sales as more Ojai growers have planted pixies and more retailers and consumers have noticed how good they are.

Somewhere in there Lisa Brenneis and I got married. Because we got married on March 30, our anniversary often gets short shrift, as the pixie season is always in full chaotic motion right about then. We spent our third anniversary, after the serious freeze of winter 1990, dropping partly frozen pixies into a big vat of water outside the shed to see which ones were frozen and needed to be thrown away and which ones we could sell. (Frozen citrus gets air pockets, and tends to float; unfrozen citrus lacks the air pockets and tends to sink. So all you have to do is reach into the freezing water and pull the unfrozen ones out…)

In addition to tolerance of me, a lifelong enthusiasm for really good food, and immense horticultural experience, Lisa brings to the operation wisdom, skepticism, a long-term planning sensibility, and really cool art direction.

Now we have about 1000 pixie trees; we also grow Pages, Satsumas, Encores, Seedless Kishus, TDEs, Gold Nuggets, as well as Chandler pummelos, oro blancos and cocktail grapefruit. We also still grow some avocados, but the big bet is on Pixies.

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