Spring is in the air and the Ojai Pixie is flirting with fame.
Small in size but growing in stature, the tiny tangerine is the focus of a grass-roots campaign by Ojai Valley ranchers determined to gain a foothold in California's competitive citrus industry.
The movement is sprouting supporters far and wide, as tangerine lovers turn on to the bite-sized fruit--renowned for its tangy taste--at farmers' markets and boutique grocery stores from New York to Los Angeles.
"The fruit speaks for itself," said Lisa Brenneis, who with her husband, Jim Churchill, are among Ojai's largest Pixie producers.
"You don't really have to do much more than hand it to people and they're converted."
Well, actually, there's a little more to it than that.
About 15 Ojai-area growers devote more than 70 acres to the Pixie, one of hundreds of tangerine varieties available in the United States.
While farmers in other parts of the state dabble in Pixie production, Ojai growers are fond of saying that no one grows more Pixies and no one grows them better.
The latter claim may be open to dispute, but there's no question that Ojai growers have single-handedly carved a market for the small tangerine, elbowing aside better-known produce for precious space on grocery shelves.
Good thing it's so small. The Pixie is the size of a golf ball, seedless and easy to peel. It has a longer growing season than other varieties, available in markets from March to midsummer.
A handful of local ranchers recently formed the Ojai Valley Pixie Growers Assn. to spread the word about the Pixie's attributes.
The effort paid off last month when the Ojai Pixie was highlighted in Sunset magazine's Best of the West issue.
That was followed by news that the Pixie for the first time will be mass distributed nationwide by Melissa's/World Variety Produce Inc., the country's leading purveyor of specialty produce.
"I can already foresee that it's going to be a popular product," said Robert Schueller, assistant marketing director for the produce company, which has been test-marketing the Pixie for a couple of years in states including Texas, New York and New Jersey.
"Markets are always looking for ways to offer something different, and they love this fruit," he said. "We would love to have it year-round."
Not a bad coup for a tangerine that up until a few years ago was readily dismissed as a backyard fruit.
Although the Pixie has been around since 1927, when it was bred at the UC Riverside Citrus Research Center, it has been overshadowed by more popular varieties as well as bigger, better-looking members of the citrus family such as lemons and oranges.
It had been considered too small to have any commercial appeal, said Tracy Kahn, curator of the center's citrus collection.
But the Ojai contingent has slowly changed that perception over the past decade, Kahn said.
"There's a big movement to learn more about how to grow them and how to market them," said Kahn, who sits on a statewide task force exploring such tangerine-related topics. "It's really forward-thinking of these guys to be looking at these issues."
The Pixie has been planted in the rocky soil of the Ojai Valley for at least two decades.
That's how long Tony Thacher has been growing them at Friend's Ranch, a 100-acre operation that has been in business for more than a century.
"They've always been extremely popular, and we've never been able to grow enough of them," said Thacher, who has four acres in Pixie production and another nine acres of newer plantings soon to start bearing fruit.
"But we've always had a problem wholesaling them because they're small and not particularly attractive," he said. "The trick has been to bypass the wholesalers and go directly to the customers. Once the customers eat them they want to know where they can get more."
For many years, that strategy was largely limited to farmers' markets from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, where Ojai growers pitched their Pixies directly to customers and quietly built a loyal following.
It was Jim Churchill who added juice to the marketing campaign.
He stumbled on the Pixie 20 years ago at Friend's Ranch while searching for something to prop up his foundering orchard of bacon avocados. He planted his own Pixie trees and by 1987 they were producing enough fruit that he was able to cut his first mass marketing deal with a Berkeley-based wholesaler.
That was followed a few years ago by a deal with Los Angeles-based Melissa's, which this year has agreed to distribute up to 50,000 pounds of Pixies to major cities across the United States.
"I'm just as proud as anybody can be," said Churchill, who devotes nine of his 17 acres to Pixies. "I just want to produce enough so that people know about the Pixie and so that the demand for the fruit stays greater than the supply."
Plantings at other ranches have also increased in recent years, so that today there are about 9,600 Pixie trees studding the Ojai Valley.
Churchill estimates that Ojai growers will produce about 90 tons of the fruit this year--worth an estimated $14 million--and 150 tons next year.
At maturity, when each tree is producing at least 200 pounds of fruit, the Ojai Valley will be able to pump out more than 1,000 tons of Pixies a year, valued at more than $150 million at current wholesale prices.
That's not to say there aren't some hurdles to overcome.
There isn't much research on the Pixies or other tangerines, leaving the Ojai contingent to figure out how best to prune the trees and why some trees produce more than others.
At Churchill's ranch, Lisa Brenneis has taken to monitoring production tree by tree on a hand-drawn chart coded with symbols only she can decipher.
There are other worries too, including the constant development of new tangerine varieties touted as larger and tastier than the Pixie.
Ojai Pixie growers are undeterred.
They say proof that the Pixie will hold its own in years to come can be seen at local farmers' markets, where customers line up to buy the diminutive fruit with the funny name.
"If I hand out pieces and give people a taste, nearly 100% of those who try it will buy them," said Mary Shore, who with her husband, Mike, farms eight acres of Pixies at their 78-acre ranch.
On a recent day at a farmers' market in Ventura, customers flocked around her fruit stand asking for the Pixie. Anne Thille peeled one on the spot and handed slices to her 2-year-old son, Sean. The boy wolfed them all down in a few seconds.
Another woman, Linda Brown, has been dubbed by Shore as the "Pixie Queen" because she shows up every week and buys bags of the fruit.
"We've been selling other varieties for longer periods of time, but people are getting on to these pretty well," Shore said. "Whenever they're out of season, people are always coming up and asking when we'll have them in."