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Mandarins bring zest to fall

Growers gearing up for harvest, festival
By: Gloria Young Home & Garden
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It’s a good year for mandarins at Highland Orchard in Penryn. “For us, personally — everyone is different — we have a great crop,” Highland’s Tony Aguilar Jr. said. “This is our on year. Last year we were a little lighter.” The Aguilar family purchased the acreage in the late 1940s, but didn’t begin planting mandarins until 1992. “It was just a better crop, something that did well in the area,” Aguilar said. “Some other growers had already started doing it and it was something we thought would work.” They started with a couple of acres and added 300 to 400 trees yearly for the next few years. In the beginning, it is a waiting game. Mandarin trees don’t produce for the first five years. Today, the Aguilars till 12 acres of mandarins, all at peak production. The fruit is in the ripening stage now, which is running about two weeks later than last year. But there will be plenty for visitors at this weekend’s Mountain Mandarin Festival, he said. The season lasts until mid-January. In addition to the many bags of mandarins they sell at the festival, the Aguilars have on-site sales at Highland Orchard. Their flavorful citrus is also available in the produce section at Whole Foods Markets in the Sacramento region and Bay Area. In the early days of the farm, Tony’s parents, Tony and Noreen Aguilar, grew stone fruits. That ended in the 1960s. These days, the focus is totally on mandarins and it is a year-round task. “Once the fruit is done — all picked out — then we prune and clean up the orchard,” he said. “By the time that’s all done, you’re going into summer, which is irrigation and that whole schedule.” Fall’s warm days and chilly nights are the perfect combination for bringing to perfection the sweetness of the mandarins. “We taste all the time,” Aguilar said. “During the harvest, we probably eat two or three every day to see exactly what they’re tasting like out of each block. You’re tasting them daily, wherever they’re being picked, to see that they’re coming in with the sugar levels you want.” For Aguilar, growing mandarins is the ideal occupation. In previous years, he also had a full-time job off the farm, but he now devotes full time to the groves. What he likes best is being his own boss “That’s pretty hard to beat — being able to call the shots and growing something people like,” he said. Mark Foley, of Westview Growers and owner of Blue Goose Produce in Loomis, has been growing mandarins since 1995 and has participated in the Mandarin Festival for about 10 years. What he enjoys most about the festival is the interaction with the customers. “They’re always so excited,” he said. “It is such a great festival — so much to do and see, and the wonderful mandarins that everyone comes for.” This year’s later ripening season is actually more of the norm, he said. “We’ve kind of gotten spoiled because they’ve ripened earlier (during the past two or three years),” he said. “Usually about Nov. 15 is when we start picking and selling. We’re hoping the weather will participate and hold out for us. That’s usually the indicator of how busy the festival will be.” The Aguilars ad Foley, along with more than a dozen other growers, will sell 5-pound and 10-pound bags of mandarins at the festival, which will also feature a recipe contest, AGROart competition, professional chef demonstrations, children’s area, music, food and 225 vendors. ----------- Mountain Mandarin Festival When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday Where: Gold Country Fairgrounds, 1273 High St., Auburn Admission: $6; seniors $4; age 12 and under free. Parking is $5, some street parking available More information: Call mandarinfestival.com