farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Orange glow: Sunset Ridge Mandarins

Though a recent California transplant, I had always known that almost anything you can think of can grow in the Central Valley area. Yet I guess the part of my brain that thinks about orange citrus fruits—to the extent that it does—imagines them in hot climates, like Florida and Southern California.

So I was a bit surprised to discover that the cool climes of the Sierra Foothills are prime ground for mandarins. Apparently, a thermal cap in the region keeps it from getting too hot or too cool for mandarins. Cool weather actually sweetens the crop—and many acres of it are found among the hills and valleys of Newcastle, California, which is about an hour east of Davis.

This weekend, my husband, daughter Lily, and my mom set our sights for Sunset Ridge, a 20-acre farm overlooking the Sacramento Valley. It was the peak of mandarin season, u-pick mandarins are $1 per pound there, and the seedless “tiny oranges” are one of Lily’s favorite foods.

The last half mile of our trip was a dirt road that my Subaru handled with ease, but lower-to-the-ground vehicles are forewarned. We drove past alpacas and sweeping views before turning into Sunset Ridge—a solar-paneled bedecked farmhouse, store and about 10 acres of mandarins.

Owners Greg and Sherry Lewis have posted a detailed background about the farm and its history on their website.The short version is the couple, who both have day jobs, bought the ranch in 1999, when it was mostly covered in starthistle. They planted 2,000 Satsuma Owari mandarin trees in 2000. They also planted grapes, 50 tangelo trees, 50 navel orange trees, pomegranates and other assorted fruit trees. They don’t use pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers, and are “organic in belief in practice” but are not certified organic. Mandarins seem to be in the Lewis’s blood. Just about a mile away, Greg’s parents run Magnolia Hill Orchard, where they planted 1,000 mandarin trees in the 1980s.

Their four children help with the ranch, and one of their daughters greeted us at the entrance with two large empty buckets for us to fill and a pair of clippers. U-pickers are asked to use the clippers rather than pull the mandarins off the tree so as to avoid ripping the peel from the stem.

Children are highly welcome at the farm. Older kids can take part in a scavenger hunt that helps them explore the orchard. My not-quite 2-year-old loved it, stuffing herself with three mandarins in a row. The trees, which were roughly 5-6 feet tall, grow in rows on a slope, making for beautiful views but a bit of unsure-footedness for Lily, who stumbled quite a bit while double-fisting mandarins and wandering through the trees.

The mandarins themselves are delicious right now—not too sweet, but not at all bitter. They’re also nearly blemish-free, with a peel that gives way easily.

As I wiped off the juice that had dribbled down Lily’s shirt, my mom said she wished we had a blanket for a picnic, which is a great idea for future reference.

Before arriving to the farm, we’d stopped at The Cheese Shop  in downtown Newcastle at 455 Main Street. It’s a hole-in-the-wall, Gold Rush era relic, with some of the tastiest sandwiches and friendliest staff I’ve ever encountered at any deli. You can’t beat the $6.50 price for a sandwich full of fresh bread, meats and cheeses, and plenty of it. I wolfed down my tuna sandwich. Grant dug into the specialty “Rat Trap” sandwich. And Mom, well, she’s always a light eater, but she picked at her ham and cheese sandwich, giving special accolades to the Dutch crunch bread. It was awesome. How does this tie into a farm profile, you might ask? It’s my strong recommendation you stop off at The Cheese Stop in Newcastle to pick up some of these sandwiches for that orchard picnic.

Now, back to the farm:

We picked about as many mandarins as we’re likely to eat in the next two weeks and headed to the store area to have them weighed—about 9 pounds in the end.

The store had neatly arranged displays of local honey and specialty items like candied walnuts and apricot-mandarin syrup. Pomegranates and persimmons were for sale in little crates. They also have boxes of mandarins available as gifts and ready for shipping.

Just before heading home, Mom remarked on what a lovely day it was, how she’d like to stay longer. I teased her about her initial reaction when we asked if she wanted to go mandarin-picking with us: “Well, I already have mandarins.” She laughed at herself, standing in a field of mandarins, looking 150 miles out over the hills and valleys. Because she knows—having taken me to u-pick apples, strawberries and blackberries throughout my childhood—that you don’t go u-picking for the same reason you make a perfectly forgettable trip to the grocery store, though food may be the end result of both. You go for the fun of it, the fresh air, the change of scenery—or scenery, period. You marvel at the farmers and their drive to create such places. You thank them for letting you into their world for a while. And, of course, you eat–juice dribbling down your chin, sticky fingers and all.

THE NUTSHELL

Sunset Ridge Mandarins is open seasonally, from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mandarin season is expected to end in early January, with tangelos coming on in February. Not open Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve or New Years Day.

Address and Phone: 7825 Fox Hill Lane, Newcastle, CA. The owners say Google Maps is not to be trusted for their location, so for detailed directions, visit their website, www.gotmandarins.com. (916) 663-9158

If you’re coming from Davis: For a relaxed day that involves stopping off for Cheese Shop sandwiches, give yourself 3-4 hours for this daytrip.

For Sale: Mostly mandarins (Nov.-early Jan.) and tangelos (Feb.)

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