Lou and Lola Lodigiani are busy people this time year. It’s harvest time at their Tri-L Mandarin Ranch in the hills east of Oroville. The season is short, only about six weeks, during which the fruit has to be picked, packed for their customers, much of it shipped, and the rest sold and distributed locally. Lou, who manages the farm, has a team of pickers and a part-time assistant to help with the work, but he’ll put in many long days before the seventy to eighty tons of fruit are finally gone.
You can drive up to the ranch on Mount Ida Road and buy a bag or two directly from the small packing house. It’s a pleasant trip into foothills that are pretty and picturesque. But these hills also make production of cold sensitive citrus possible. Jim and Catie Bishop, who live on Mount Ida Road near the Lodigianis, can show why. Both of these retired scientists are very active backyard farmers, and Jim, from his home-based “Mount Ida Weather Observatory,” monitors temperature and air movement in his area. His charts reveal significantly higher night time temperatures in the foothills than on the valley floor. They show the movement of warmer air from the higher elevations downslope, replacing colder, denser air that then moves down onto the valley floor, an effect called air drainage. Jim’s graph shows January temperatures on the slopes where the orchards grow that barely reach the freezing point and then only for a very short time, while temperatures on the valley floor are four to seven degrees colder for much longer periods of time. While mandarins are more tolerant of cold than most citrus, freezing temperatures over hours of time can destroy the fruit and the leaves and, in severe freezes, kill the trees. Disastrous freezes have occurred from time to time in California, the most recent in 2007 and the most severe in 1937, when two periods of subfreezing temperatures lasting several days occurred only six days apart.
There is another reason these picturesque hills are so suitable for growing mandarins. Water is readily available for agriculture from the ditches that were created long ago to transport Feather River water down the slopes of the Sierra foothills on the east side of Oroville. Since all tree fruit require large amounts of water, this low cost water is an important factor in the production of mandarins. Lou estimates that each of his big trees drinks upwards of 125 gallons per week.
Oranges are a spectacularly complicated fruit, sometimes completely unripe when brilliantly orange and deliciously ripe when green as emeralds. Cool weather can turn unripe oranges orange, and in hot climates like Thailand’s, oranges never get orange. For thousands of years people have grown and enjoyed citrus for the beauty of the plants, the aroma of the flowers, and the usefulness of the fruit. All citrus are native to the warmer regions of Asia, and oranges are mentioned in the ancient Chinese book Yu Kung, or Tribute of Yu. (Yu reigned as emperor from 2205 B.C. to 2197 B.C.) The unpalatable but medicinally useful citron was the first to be grown outside of Asia, in Egypt as early as 1199 B.C. and in the Middle East by about 300 B.C. Other citrus followed, but at intervals of several centuries, with the most sour (lemons, then sour oranges) coming first. Sweet oranges arrived much later but became popular and were widely cultivated. These were the trees introduced to northern California when, in 1856, Judge Joseph Lewis purchased a Mediterranean Sweet Orange seedling from Jesse Morrill in Sacramento and planted it near the Bidwell Bar suspension bridge outside Oroville. By 1863, orange trees grown from the seeds of this “Mother Orange Tree” populated seventy-five Butte County acres.In 1900, orange trees, many of them descendants of the Mother Orange Tree, occupied 3300 acres of Butte County land. But periodic severe frosts have resulted in a decline of orange plantings, with some of the lost orange acreage being replaced by more cold tolerant mandarin oranges. These are the most recent arrivals of the citrus family in Butte County. One of the most popular varieties, Owari Satsuma, the one grown by the Lodigianis, is named for two historic regions in Japan. According to Joe Connell, the UC Cooperative Extension Citrus Farm Advisor in Oroville, there were 162 acres of oranges and sixty acres of mandarins grown in Butte County in 2007, the most recent year for which he has data.
Customers come to the Tri-L Mandarin Ranch from Redding, Marysville, and points between. They also have a web-site—mandarins4you.com—where customers order on-line and have their fruit shipped directly to them. And the Lodigianis deliver twenty-five pound boxes of their mandarins to nine unified school districts up and down the Highway 70 and 99 corridor for school lunches. “Mandarins are sweet, very easy to peel, and the kids eat the whole thing,” explains Lou. This year, Tri-L has partnered with other mandarin farmers in the hills of Oroville to wholesale their fruit under the name Feather River Gold via an independent packing and distributing organization. They hope to sell to retailers like Raley’s, Trader Joe’s, and other markets as far north as Portland and maybe as far south as Los Angeles. The Lodigianis are also are planning to diversify their offerings, so that in three years they expect have heirloom apples, persimmons, and Christmas trees in addition to mandarins for customers who come to their ranch.
The Mother Orange Tree is still alive and well in Oroville. It has been moved a couple of times, the first in 1862 as the rising waters of the Feather River threatened to wash it away. In August of 1964, it was transported down the hill to 400 Glen Drive, where it currently resides—still bearing abundant fruit—153 years after it was planted. Herbert John Webber, who was the Director of the University of California’s Citrus Experiment Station at Riverside, had this to say about it in a 1927 article in Sunset Magazine: “The mother orange tree at Bidwell’s Bar is no weakling. It is a giant of its kind, famous for its age, its size, and its setting. No apology is needed for recognizing the greatness of such a noble tree, worthy representative of the golden fruit of Hesperides. It was the first orange tree in a wild and rugged country and soon became famous. From its example and largely from its offspring, a new industry was started in a new section hundreds of miles north of a known citrus region. It was a true pioneer.”
The more desirable Washington navel orange and the Valencia orange have supplanted the early oranges grown from the Mother Orange Tree. Fortunately the fruit of these two orange varieties mature in different seasons; navels ripen from December through April and Valencias from May through November. Interestingly, Valencias take fourteen months to ripen, so in April, Valencia orange trees stand in full-blossom and laden with fruit! Owari Satsuma mandarins, like Washington navels, will set fruit without the flowers being pollinated, so these varieties are seedless, at least most of the time. Once in a while an industrious bee will bring pollen from a seedy citrus variety to their flowers, causing the fruit to develop seeds.
Lou and Lola Lodigiani harvested their first mandarins in 1995. They had married in 1989 and considered planting pears, apricots, or wine grapes as potential crops before settling on citrus. Born and raised in the Bay Area, Lou is a city boy who loves the country. He graduated from California State University at Chico with his teaching credential, but, as he explains, “The market at that time for beginning teachers was like it is now,” so he went to work with the Butte County District Attorney’s office, first as a parole officer, and then as an investigator. But he yearned to farm the land. In the seventies, he almost became a kiwi farmer. In the early eighties, he almost bought property in Honcut to grow grapes. Then he made a good faith offer to buy a walnut grove but failed to obtain the financing. Now after twenty-nine years in the District Attorney’s Office, Lou grows mandarins and loves it. He and Lola started with a horse ranch and laboriously and lovingly carved out two groves, one six, the other eight acres, for their mandarins.
Many of their neighbors are also growers who became farmers because they loved doing it. Robert and Cindy Friedman have been living on two acres on Mount Ida Road since the solar energy business brought Robert to Oroville from Sonoma in 2001. Their land, which neighbors that of Jim and Catie Bishop, has enough orange trees to keep Robert busy selling them from his stall at the Chico Farmers’ Market in Saturdays from December through February, mostly Diller sweet oranges, but some blood oranges and Meyer lemons too. “I know they are Dillers,” says Robert, “because, when they blossom in April, the orchard has a distinct aroma of pineapples, and this is characteristic of Dillers. And,” he adds with a wink, “they are sweeter than navel oranges.” Jim and Catie’s adjacent property line ceded that couple three Diller orange trees, which they harvest at a much more leisurely pace than does Robert, theirs lasting into July.
The Lodigianis and their neighbors, like farmers everywhere, worry about the vagaries of the future. The weather strongly affects fruit production so that the crop can be wonderfully abundant or nonexistent or something in between. The possibility of a freezing Arctic air mass settling on the slopes and destroying the year’s production and several, perhaps all, the trees is always there. Citrus is susceptible to a number of pests, such as citrus thrips and California red scale. Lurking to the south, having already ravaged the Florida citrus crops before moving into Louisiana, and now causing trouble in southern Mexico, vectored by the Asian citrus psyllid, is a new bacterial infection, Huanglongbing (HLB), or citrus greening disease. Once infected with HLB, since there is no cure, and the citrus tree dies.
But the neighbors also worry about a threat that is much closer at hand, and that is the possibility of residential development. Lou has this to say: “This is a wonderful, historic agribusiness region throughout these foothills. It’s all because ditches and waterways were built off the Feather River in the mid-1800s to provide the foundations for farms to come in here. I’d hate to see this all become high density dwellings. Robert Friedman and all of his neighbors, Lola, and myself, have been pretty influential, I think, pretty much a pest with the Board of Supervisors, the Citizens’ Advisory Committee, and the Planning Department ensuring that they understand the importance of agricultural-residential, tourist-based, small family farms like these. Don’t wipe all this out and turn this into another Los Angeles. We don’t need another Los Angeles up here!”
Rick Bliss is a former engineer and retired college professor. He has been an avid photographer and occasional writer for nearly fifty years.