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Friday, 28 November 2014 19:15

A Legacy of Mandarins in Penryn

Mandarins in chute at packing shed PicmonkeyJust-picked Mandarins come down the chute for sorting

by Dan Clarke

At Mandarin Hill Orchards Tom Aguilar can show visitors trees planted by Welsh settlers in the 1880s. Main street in the little town of Penryn, which is about half a mile away, is English Colony Road. Just a few miles south are the communities of Orangevale and Citrus Heights. These days both are suburbs of Sacramento, but their identities harken to the era when they, too, were all about farming. Citrus orchards were prominent on both sides of the Placer-Sacramento County line and though it may seem incongruous, British settlers were a big part of that.

Tom's ancestors came from Malaga in Spain's Andalusia, which would seem a more likely heritage for farming this sort of crop. His father, Frank Aguilar, purchased 50-acres on Penryn's Rippey Road in 1943 from a Welsh couple who had opted to retire. There was some citrus on the property, including Mandarins and navel oranges, but also pears, plums and peaches. When blight decimated the pear industry in the area in the 1950's, Tom's parents began replacing the pears and stone fruit with Mandarin trees and after several years Frank and Bernice had 20-acres of their own recently-planted Mandarins. “The first few years they gave them away,” Tom Aguilar recalls. “Nobody knew what Mandarins were.” Happily for the Aguilars and other Placer County growers, the public eventually did learn about these little orange fruits and developed quite a taste for them.

Other citrus fruits are also grown at Mandarin Hill. These include navel and Valencia oranges, Marsh grapefruit, an heirloom variety, Meyer lemons and Eureka lemons. However, the ranch is named Mandarin Hill, not miscellaneous-citrus fruit-hill. The Mandarins include Owari Satsumas and Algerian Clementines.

On the day Taste California Travel visited Mandarin Hill, Tom's father, now in his 90's, was working in the packing area, as were his brother-in-law and his son-in-law. It's definitely a family business. With less than half the property's 50 acres dedicated to citrus trees, Tom's daughter and son-in-law, Jacque and Rick Kennedy, have begun planting wine grapes. At the moment they have a couple of acres of Malbec and Nebbiolo in the ground. They're proceeding on a pay-as-you-go basis, adding another acre each year. The slopping hills on this 600-foot elevation site in the Sierra Foothills are likely to produce good quality fruit.

Tom Aguilar with old Mandarin tree PicmonkeyTom Aguilar points out a tree from the 19th Century. It's still producing though the fruit is getting smaller.

Mandarin Hill produce is distributed through grocery stores in the Sacramento area and also in markets from Reno, Nevada, south to Patterson, California. As wholesale buyers and the public in general gravitate toward products sourced nearby, Tom says he no longer identifies his fruit just as Satsumas, but refers to them as local Satsumas. He makes a good case for the superiority of the mountain-grown fruit, saying that he and other small growers in Placer County don't pick green and can wait until fruit is ripe before harvesting. Also, Mandarins grown above the floor of California's Central Valley, experience colder nights, which Tom believes “Makes the fruit a little sweeter, as it shuts the tree down for a while, allowing it to produce more sugar.” Their Mandarins are also believed to have health benefits in relieving colds and allergies. A brochure produced by area growers cites a study by the USDA, which reported, “Owari Satsuma Mandarins grown in Placer County have synephrine concentrations up to six times higher than values previously determined for orange juices.”

In addition to shipping their produce, the Aguilar family welcomes the public to Mandarin Hill Orchards. It's good business, but they really enjoy the visitors and it seems to satisfy them on a deeper level. “You can get a job anywhere,” Tom says, “but the people who come in here—99% of them are in a good mood. If you can give them a little education about farming and their kids are having fun . . . they'll come back. “

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