The scent of blossoms ― orange, grapefruit, tangerine, lemon ― floats on the fresh, cool air every spring in Ojai. Thousands of citrus trees grow in this little mountain-ringed valley 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles. So do avocados, olives, lavender, and a wide smattering of other crops, including walnuts, tomatoes, and persimmons, each planted in the microclimate that suits it best. The fertile, well-drained soil and the long, warm days are part of why crops thrive here. The chilly nights are another: The valley runs east to west, mouth open to the nearby Pacific, drawing in the cold ocean air that gives Ojai's oranges their bright, deeply hued skins.
Ojai is famous for its annual music festival and 111-year-old tennis tournament, and for a beauty so unspoiled that it attracts spiritual seekers of all kinds, along with artists and Hollywood actors, who settle here among the farmers and regular folk. There are no big-box stores or sprawling housing developments. Small family farms of 20 acres or less are the norm, and their pleasing irregularity makes the landscape even prettier. Mountains rise to 6,000 feet on three sides of the valley, helping protect it from parching Santa Ana winds ― and, somehow, from the pressures of 21st-century life. When you're in Ojai, you feel sheltered from the world.
Its sheer loveliness makes Ojai different from other farming areas. But so does its strong sense of community. Five years ago, graphic designer Tracey Ryder and her partner, photographer Carole Topalian, founded a newsletter called Edible Ojai. Chatty, personable, and full of articles about local produce, farmers, and chefs ― plus recipes, essays on agricultural issues, and literary musings on food, much of it written by the farmers themselves ― it suddenly gave the valley a new appreciation for what it had. And Edible Ojai had a natural partner: the Ojai farmers' market, where shoppers could meet some of the personalities behind (and featured in) the newsletter.
They could, for instance, try buttery Fuerte avocados and sweet Pixie tangerines grown by Jim Churchill, an energetic, funny, brainy guy who spends part of his time trying to introduce local produce into Ojai's school lunches. They could get to know Friend's Ranches' Emily Ayala, a down-to-earth fifth-generation orange farmer, along with her beautiful Valencias. They could taste peppery local olive oil and meet tall, gentlemanly Ron Asquith, its producer, an industrial psychologist and former Occidental Petroleum executive now deep in a different kind of oil business.
The market has doubled in size in the past six years, and about 40 farmers, most of them local, set up there every Sunday. It's a big draw for residents and tourists alike. One shopper told Asquith, "You know, I used to go to church. Now I come here."
Ojai oranges are worth their price
The valley cherishes its farmers. When a serious freeze this past January wiped out much of Ojai's avocado crop and a big chunk of its citrus, costs shot up but shoppers paid anyway. Considering all that farmers face ― not just the occasional brutal weather, but also expensive land and labor and competition from imported crops ― it's amazing that farming in Ojai exists at all. It does, though, because people here want it to. Imported fruit might be cheaper, but Ojai oranges are worth their price.
As for Edible Ojai, it has borne its own kind of fruit: It's now grown into a magazine, and Ryder and Topalian have received calls from people all over the country who want to start their own regional food publications. So today there are 25 newsletters, from Edible Portland to Edible Boston.
At one of Edible Ojai's regular potluck dinners recently, after a feast that finished with citrus popsicles, the talk turned to what could be driving this deep interest in food, for farmers and customers alike. Lisa Brenneis, a filmmaker and computer whiz who's married to Jim Churchill, got to the heart of it: "Food is about people wanting to communicate with each other, and food does that at a level that's beyond words ― it short-circuits the intellect. If you hand someone something you've made, it can encapsulate a message about what's valuable to you. And if they get the message, it's at a deep level. It's like dreaming the same dream." In Ojai, that can happen.