How does an Orange become Organic?

Why is some of Terra Firma’s citrus fruit Certified Organic, and some not yet? There’s a pretty simple explanation and it helps explain some of the quirks of how we farm and get you such a wide variety of produce.
Growing citrus in Northern California takes the right combination of geography, time and a large helping of luck.  Unlike many types of fruit, citrus is not particular about the soil it needs.  However, it does take the right microclimate: specifically an area that doesn’t get “too cold” during the winter.  Temperatures much below 27 degrees in a certain year will destroy the crop.  Most of our citrus orchards are in the hills along the west side of the valley, in spots that get morning sun.  On winter nights the coldest air flows down into the valley below.
Citrus orchards take 8-10 years to pay for themselves.  A hard freeze below 25 degrees during that time can damage the trees and extend that period; temperatures below 20 can kill the trees entirely.  So it’s a risky, long-term investment.
While Terra Firma has planted some citrus orchards, we also farm mature orchards that we lease.  Generally these orchards are not certified organic when we start farming them.  We currently have four mature orchards that we manage.  They are all in Winters, but each is on separate piece of land:
 — One is 100% mandarins, half of which are 30 years old and half of which we planted ourselves 10 years ago.  This orchard has been certified organic for over ten years.
— One is mixed specialty varieties including: Melogold, Oroblanco, and Rio Red Grapefruit as well as Blood Oranges.  It has been certified organic for almost twenty years.
— One is half Ruby Red Grapefruit and half Navel Oranges.  It has been certified organic for over twenty years.
— One is Navel Oranges and a small amount of Lemons.  We have been farming it for two and a half years.  It was a conventional orchard when we started managing it, but since then we have used only organic methods growing the oranges.  We were very lucky to get this orchard in 2015 less than a year after our primary Navel orange orchard died when its well failed.
To “transition” a piece of land from conventional to organic takes at least three years.  The ticker starts the day after the last documented application of non-organic pesticides or fertilizers.  If there is no documentation, it can take significantly longer.
The process is more straightforward with an open piece of land.  Three years and one day after the last non-organic materials were applied, you can start harvesting Certified Organic crops — provided you have gone through the certification process and had the land inspected.
With an orchard, it’s a little different.  The crop is harvested just once a year.  In the case of our newest Navel Orange orchard, the previous farmer had fertilized it in May of 2014 — a month after harvest ended —  with a material that is not organic.  The orchard itself will eligible for organic certification in May of 2017.  But the crop will be finished by then.  So the first officially “certified organic” crop from the orchard will be next year, 2018.
This is a beautiful orchard of very large 25-year old trees that produce loads of fruit.  But “transitioning” from conventional fertilizers to organic ones almost always causes the trees to go into a period of withdrawal or shock.  They are accustomed to being spoon fed conventional fertilizers.  When we switch them over to organic, they have to grow more roots in order to get their nutrients from the soil instead.  The leaves tend to turn a little yellow for a few years during the process and the trees produce less.  We usually prune them during this time, which encourages them to grow more new roots.
Citrus is the only freshly harvested fruit you can grow locally in Northern California during the winter.  It’s a delicious and nutritious component of a locavore diet in the wintertime here.  We are proud to have mandarins, oranges, lemons and/or grapefruit in your CSA boxes every week from mid-November through late winter in your boxes.  Even if they are not officially organic yet.
We hope you feel the same way,
Thanks,
Pablito

 

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