When it came time to name his farm, Richard Ferreira needed only to look at his surroundings for inspiration.
Side Hill Citrus, a certified organic mandarin farm, is just outside Lincoln where flat farmland gives way to rolling hills punctuated by shallow gullies and wiggly creeks. Left unattended, the land is covered with pines, oaks, blackberries, poison oak and whatever grasses can eek out an existence in a climate that gets no rain for as many as seven months of the year.
Ferreira roams his 47-acre orchard in a slightly dilapidated right-side-drive utility vehicle with his three dogs: a big yellow lab still in the puppy stage and two terrier mixes. The lab wants to play. Ferreira hopes the terriers will deter the gophers that are destroying many of his trees.
The long drought gripping California has hardly scathed Ferreira’s 3,000-plus Satsuma mandarin trees. He’s always grown them on the dry side, and believes the combination of good soil, cool fall and winter temperatures and rationed water makes his mandarins sweeter and the flavor more complex that those grown on the valley floor. Many other farmers and mandarin buyers have also apparently concluded that Placer County mandarins taste better than those grown elsewhere.
“When I first started back in 1975, there were probably 10 other mandarin orchards” in the Placer County hills, Ferreira noted. “I was the newcomer. Now there are 75 or 80 growers, maybe even 100. You can’t hardly throw a rock any more without hitting a mandarin orchard.”
Ferreira picks his mandarins as they ripen rather than in one fell swoop like many large commercial growers. He harvests ripe mandarins 10 to 15 times during the season.
“I don’t over water and I don’t over fertilize.”
When he purchased the land in 1975, about 100 mandarin trees – which had been planted in the 1960s – were already growing. Many of those original trees still produce today. Ferreira added more acreage over the years, and kept planting mandarins. He also grows a small number of oranges and grapefruit, and has planted 150 Meyer lemon trees. His orchard has been California Certified Organic since 1990.
Ferreira is one of the larger Placer County growers. He sells his mandarins in the Bay Area, as well as at the Mountain Mandarin Festival (Nov. 21-23, Gold Country Fairgrounds in Auburn). He’s also opened a shop in Newcastle, where customers can buy mandarins since his farm is so far off the beaten path.
Under a wisteria-covered pergola just off the side of the mandarin orchard, Ferreira sat to talk about his orchard. He looked at the trees, smiled, shook his head in disbelief. “I never thought I’d be making my living selling mandarins,” he said.
It hasn’t been easy for the fourth-generation farmer. He’s had to take other jobs to keep the farm going and support himself and his two daughters. He’s driven a truck and worked as a welder.
It’s the things you can’t control, the unknown, Ferreira said, that make him feel like he’s living slightly on the edge. Late November rains can cause mold on the crop. A prolonged spring can result in a stretched out bloom time, which means the harvest will last for months. Too much summer water can leave the trees more susceptible to disease. The deer break through his fencing (only part of the acreage is deer fenced) and either nibble on the plants or rub their antlers against the trunks. The deer killed almost 300 of the 500 new mandarins he planted recently. Gophers have become a major problem. “They kill about 10 trees a year, and weaken others.”
For all farmers, and Ferreira is no exception, the work is never done.
“No matter which way I walk, whatever time of year, there is something that needs doing or fixing,” he said. The work begins just after harvest and continues up until it is finished.
Harvest season runs from mid-November through the first of March, depending on the weather. Some years the harvest is heavy and early, and there are few mandarins left by Christmas. Other years there are plenty of mandarins well into early spring. Last year Ferreira harvested about 240,000 pounds of mandarins. This year he expects the harvest to be about 180,000 pounds. Mandarins bear heavily alternate years, he explained, so this year’s crop for him will be lighter than last year.
Once the harvest is over, Ferreira spreads compost – horse manure, straw, rice hulls or wood shavings – over the top of the soil. It protects the soil, preserves moisture, deters weeds, and then feeds the soil once it breaks down. By April he’s checking irrigation systems, knocking down gopher mounds and keeping the weeds controlled. Then there are mowers to fix, tractors to service, tools to clean and fences to mend. “I have to be vigilant or the deer will find their way through,” he said. Ferreira generally has one or two helpers during the year.
At the 475-foot elevation mark, Side Hill Citrus doesn’t have a lot of problems with cold weather, and Ferreira’s attitude is pretty laid back. “I just turn up the electric blanket, roll over and go back to sleep. Actually, I rarely lose plants to the cold; the deer are a much bigger threat all during the year.”
SIDE HILL CITRUS
Highway 193 & Old State Highway, Newcastle. (916) 343-1098.
Take the Indian Hill/Newcastle Road exit, go over the freeway and turn right onto Old State Highway. Go under the railroad trestle. It’s on the right, and is the last address on Highway 193 before it meets Taylor Road. The address is 9200, but MapQuest will give you the wrong directions. Open during mandarin season. Call ahead first for hours. ww.sidehillcitrus.com.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE CERTIFIED ORGANIC?
“Organic refers to methods of growing and processing foods that rely on the earth’s natural resources,” said Richard Ferreira, owner of Side Hill Citrus, a certified organic mandarin farm outside Lincoln. “We manage pests by encouraging beneficial insects, for example, and weeds with mowing or mulching. We work to feed the soil rather than fertilize the plants with artificial chemicals.”
Products labeled “certified organic” have been grown and processed according to strict standards by the California Certified Organic Farmers, a USDA accredited organic certifying agency and trade association. CCOF, established in 1973, became the first organic certification entity in the United States and annually inspects California farms and facilities applying for organic status to ensure no harmful chemicals have been used for at least three years, that foods are processed using sustainable methods, and that growers and processors keep detailed records of their practices.
FACTS ON SATUSUMA MANDARINS
Satsuma mandarins originated in China, and eventually made their way to Japan, Europe and the United States. They grow best in areas with hot summers and cool winters.
Satsumas are seedless, easy to peel and quite juicy. They are high in vitamin C. Tests conducted by the USDA Albany Research Center show Placer County mandarins contain as much as six times more synephrine as other citrus. Synephrine is an ingredient in many decongestants.
Mandarin season usually runs from November through January, although can last almost to March some years. A bowl of mandarins makes a beautiful centerpiece for holiday tables all winter. Mandarins are delicious raw, in salads, desserts and sauces.
Squeeze them for juice. Freeze any extra juice and thaw as needed. Toss two or three in a child’s lunch bag for a healthy, sweet treat.