Winter is citrus season in Northern California. And when winter arrives early, as it did this year, so do the first citrus crops: Mandarins and Meyer Lemons. It’s a bit of a paradox, but these subtropical fruits — which cannot withstand freezing temperatures — don’t really ripen here until nighttime temperatures drop into the 40s.
Unlike all the other fruit we grow, citrus trees are “evergreen”. Although they are not related to pine trees, when the round fruit on them begin to ripen among their glossy green leaves, they look a lot like Christmas trees dangling with ornaments. And during harvest, the smell of their rinds perfumes the air.
Citrus arrives just as the rest of our fruit crops are finishing up, making them the perfect fit for our CSA program. The only inconvenience is timing the harvest around the weather: citrus cannot be picked when it’s threatening to rain, raining or even the day after a heavy rain. The ground has to be firm enough to use a ladder and drive a tractor through the orchard without making ruts, and the fruit and leaves have to be dry. Citrus that is picked with moisture on it will quickly spoil when it comes into contact with other wet fruit.
This can lead to a bit of circus on here at Terra Firma in wet years such as this one. If there’s only one or two dry days a week to harvest in between rains, we may venture out to pick on a day when the ground is mostly dry, only to get the tractor (which we use to pull the trailers through the orchard) stuck in a low spot. We’ve also gotten trucks (which we use to haul the fruit from the orchard to the cooler) stuck. One year, even the tractor got stuck and we had to use another tractor to free it from the mud.
Basically any day that it’s sunny and dry in the winter, you can find us out in the citrus orchards picking. Luckily, the fruit keeps well in the cooler so we can stock up in advance of the wet weeks.
Because of the challenges that rain presents, most of the citrus grown in California is produced south of Fresno where they get less than a quarter the rainfall we get here. That makes for a noticeable flavor difference between citrus grown here, where most years the trees are not irrigated in the winter, and down there where they must be irrigated year-round. If you were evaluating citrus based on the amount of water it takes to produce, ours is far more “water sustainable”.
The varieties are also different. We grow Satsuma Mandarins, which are bred for their tolerance to colder weather, while farms down south typically grow Clementines or Clemenules — also called “Cuties” or “Halos”. The Satsumas have a much more assertive flavor profile.
Meyer Lemons are actually a hybrid of Mandarins and Lemons. This gives them a smoother peel, sweeter juice, and better cold tolerance than regular lemons. They also ripen sooner, which is why we are able to start picking them now.
Terra Firma’s citrus season goes all winter, with Navel Oranges taking over for Mandarins in February and lasting until April.