Guest Post: Self Reliance with Dena Jardin

Welcome to our first guest post!

Dena and Rodger Jardin have inspired me for a long time.  They have a level of grit and determination that is well deserving of admiration which made it a really simple decision on my part to ask Dena if she would write a guest post about their Business: AM Mandarins.  The Jardin’s live and operate their home business in Oroville, California where they have lived since the 70’s.  You can read more of Dena’s writing and get more information about their business from her Blog: Dean’s Homestead.

Why We Grow What We Grow

Dena AM MandarinsIn 2010 my husband Roger and I were looking out over our six and a half acres in northern California wondering what we could do with some of the property to generate an income. We have done many things in the past on this land with a certain degree of success. Most of the things we had pursued were labor intensive. We know that most uses involving land require a certain degree of work, but at our age we were definitely looking for less physical labor.

There were several varieties of fruit trees in production on the property from trees we had planted long ago. We had already become certified as a Cottage Kitchen so we could sell the jams, jellies and fruit butters we made, at local farmer’s markets and events.

We agreed that whatever we decided to do it had to meet certain criteria. First, the labor required to make the land produce an income had to be achievable by the two of us with little outside help. Second, it had to involve something that no one else in the area was doing so that the competition was minimal. Third, it was not going to involve large animals, again! Fourth, it had to be something we would enjoy doing.

The research began in earnest for something we could plant as a viable and valuable use of the land. In the past we had grown tomatoes that we sold to local grocery stores. That involved replanting every year and daily work to pick up and deliver when the tomatoes were ripening. It generated an income, but it was more labor intensive that we wanted again. We started considering fruit trees.

We have a very productive Mission Fig tree that does well during the hot summers and considered putting in an orchard of fig trees. Figs are fairly easy to grow and easy to sell, but there are inherent problems with them. There is a constant battle to pick rip figs before the birds get them. They are very fragile with a short shelf life as a fresh commodity. Fig trees also produce a milky white latex sap that contains ficin. Ficin is an enzyme that causes dermatitis and eye irritation, which can be from mild to severe. Figs were out of the question.

We also have several Washington Navel Orange trees on the property that were planted almost one hundred years ago. The entire property had been planted in navels at one time. We knew that citrus grow well in our area. Where our property sits is considered, by the Agriculture Department, as being in the “banana belt” of Butte County. There are many ranches in the area that grown Satsuma and Owari Mandarins, so in November and December the market is flooded with them, they were out as a choice.

Knowing that citrus do well in this area we started looking at different varieties. We came across a fruit called a Pixie Tangerine. They are grown in the Ojai valley in southern California. They are sweet, seedless, easy to peel and they ripen in March, April and May. This seemed to be something in the right direction. The question was, would they grow here? The Ojai valley does not get as cold as we do here in Oroville.

We read research out of the University of California, Riverside that developed this strain of citrus. We contacted our local Butte County Farm Adviser and talked to him about the fruit. We got information from the University of California, Davis. We looked for a grower that was producing stock we could purchase and spoke to them. We found out that no one north of Fresno was growing this particular fruit commercially because of the cold winters. The Butte County Farm Adviser felt that if anyone in Butte County could successfully grown Pixies it would be us because of our “banana belt” status.

When we found a grower that produced Pixie Tangerine stock, he also told us about another citrus fruit that no one was growing commercially around here. That fruit was a Gold Nugget Mandarin. It too was easy to peel, seedless and quite sweet. We again researched and found that the reason the Gold Nugget is not grown commercially is that it is “ugly”. You can have ripe fruit on the tree at that same time that varies in size from two inches in diameter to five inches in diameter. The skin can be smooth, slightly bumpy or very bumpy! Stores want uniformity in size and character, they don’t care how good the produce is.

Roger and I felt that if the fruit was sweet and available when no other fresh picked citrus was available that we could overcome ugly with samples and good salesmanship at the farmer’s markets. We were not planning on wholesaling the fruit anyway. We purchased ten Pixie Tangerine and ten Gold Nugget Mandarin trees for a trial run to see how well they would do here.

The trees were small when we planted them in the ground in April of 2011. It would be a waiting game of a couple of years to see how they would do in the cold winters. We decided on drip irrigation for a conservative use of water. We had researched becoming certified organic growers but felt that the investment to do so was not where we wanted to go. Although we are not certified organic, we do not use sprays; insecticides or pesticides. We use urea for fertilization and used ducks and geese for weed control between the trees.

There were a couple of issues with our little trees. First of all, the deer loved the taste of the newly planted baby tree leaves. We immediately put in fence posts and surrounded the twenty little trees with chicken wire ten feet tall. We also had some very cold nights the first several years those trees were in the ground. We kept track of potential freezing temperatures via the National Weather Service. Any time it was predicted to drop below thirty-five degrees we would go out in the afternoon and cover each tree with a large black plastic bag. The little trunks were protected with insulating foam pipe covers. Every morning after the sun was up the bags needed to be removed so the trees would not cook inside the plastic bags.

Those trees grew like weeds, in 2012 there was a small amount of fruit on the twenty trees. Both varieties were delicious to eat, easy to peel and seedless. On young trees the Pixies are fairly large. The Gold Nugget Mandarins were ugly, but the taste made up for the ugly fruit. We never saw any freeze damage to the leaves or the fruit of either variety. In our research we found out that the oil in citrus peel acts like antifreeze for the fruit. Both of these varieties of fruit are very oily when you peel them.

In 2013 we had our first fairly large crop of fruit. We had enough fruit on the Pixie’s and Gold Nuggets for me to come up with a couple of items to add to our growing list of jams, jellies and fruit butters. We made Pixie Tangerine Marmalade and Gold Nugget Mandarin Sweet & Spicy Jam. Both are great sellers. The Sweet & Spicy has dried red pepper flakes in it for a little heat. It is great with cream cheese and crackers or as a glaze for chicken and pork.

In 2014 we decided to plant one hundred more trees. While we liked both varieties, we decided we preferred the Gold Nugget Mandarin because of the flavor. The Gold Nugget has an undertone to the citrus flavor of honey. We contacted the grower and had to wait an entire year for him to produce one hundred trees for us. As I said, no one commercially grows this fruit because it is ugly and non uniform in size so there was no available stock.

We were also in the middle of what had been many drought years here in California. We had contracted to have one hundred new trees grown, would we have enough water to grow them when we’re ready to plant? This merited a visit to our water provider. Roger met with the manager of South Feather Water and told him we would soon have new tress to plant, would water be a problem? He assured us that they had plenty of water in the reservoirs, go ahead and plant. In April of 2015 we planted one hundred more Gold Nugget Mandarins. Again the deer thought we had planted a garden for them. We had to put extension posts on the existing fence surrounding the newly planted trees and put barbed wire up so the fences were now ten feet tall.

In 2015 we had very large crops of both Pixie Tangerines and Gold Nugget Mandarins. We began selling our fruit at the local farmer’s markets. There were obstacles to overcome when selling the fruit. First and foremost we had to educate our customers. They were not used to seeing fresh picked citrus fruit in March, April and May. A lot of them thought we had been storing the fruit since November.

To educate our customers we printed up and handed out fliers at the market that contained information about both varieties of fruit. We talked to every person that walked by our booth and we handed out samples of both fruits to everyone. I would say that ninety-five percent of the people that sampled the fruit bought fruit. Most people came back every week and bought fruit again and again until we sold out.

Surprisingly, we did meet some resistance on the part of some of the local Satsuma Mandarin growers in the area. They were the only ones that commented or complained about the price per pound we were charging for our fruit. As we explained, we had no competition, the fruit was fresh and delicious. One Satsuma grower was so upset he badmouthed us to many local businesses. It turned out to be great advertising for us, people came over just to try the fruit.

In 2016 customers eagerly returned to purchase the Pixie Tangerines and Gold Nugget Mandarins. They were sad when we sold out before the end of each market and arrived earlier and earlier in the day to purchase the fruit. It was a great year of selling fresh fruit, jam, jellies, fruit butters, and a few fresh and dried herbs along the way.

It is now March of 2017. The Pixies and Gold Nugget Mandarin trees were loaded with fruit the past year and we were looking forward to another great year of selling fresh fruit. Mother Nature intervened and announced with a vengeance that the drought was over. We had almost thirty inches of rain here on the property from October 1st to the end of February. The huge amount of rain coupled with cold winds caused Citrus Blast to arrive in the orchard. In a matter of one week approximately 4000 pounds of fruit that was almost ready to be picked fell to the ground.

You can do the proper research, follow approved protocol and things can go wrong. You control what you can and live through what you have no control over. That is the life of a farmer. Hopefully and prayerfully 2018 will be a much better year.

Dena Jardin, AM Mandarins

Parting Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I did.  Dena and Rodger have really shown the level skill, hard work, and planning that goes into being self sufficient and independent.

What are you thoughts?  I would love to hear from you.  Come on over to our closed facebook discussion group to share your insights and connect with Dena and our other members.  Or you can email me directly at Jon@masteryofskill.com.  You can also sign up to receive The Friday Huddle, a short weekly email from me that gives you the tips, insights, and musings that have gotten me through the week.


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