Meet the people inspired and nurtured by this lush California growing region, and enjoy their seasonal recipes
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-ringedvalley 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 thatsuits it best. The fertile, well-drained soil and the long, warmdays are part of why crops thrive here. The chilly nights areanother: The valley runs east to west, mouth open to the nearbyPacific, drawing in the cold ocean air that gives Ojai’s orangestheir bright, deeply hued skins.
Ojai is famous for its annual music festival and 111-year-oldtennis tournament, and for a beauty so unspoiled that it attractsspiritual seekers of all kinds, along with artists and Hollywoodactors, who settle here among the farmers and regular folk. Thereare no big-box stores or sprawling housing developments. Smallfamily farms of 20 acres or less are the norm, and their pleasingirregularity makes the landscape even prettier. Mountains rise to6,000 feet on three sides of the valley, helping protect it fromparching Santa Ana winds ― and, somehow, from the pressuresof 21st-century life. When you’re in Ojai, you feel sheltered fromthe world.
Its sheer loveliness makes Ojai different from other farmingareas. But so does its strong sense of community. Five years ago,graphic designer Tracey Ryder and her partner, photographer CaroleTopalian, founded a newsletter called Edible Ojai. Chatty, personable, and full of articles aboutlocal produce, farmers, and chefs ― plus recipes, essays onagricultural issues, and literary musings on food, much of itwritten by the farmers themselves ― it suddenly gave thevalley 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 (andfeatured in) the newsletter.
They could, for instance, try buttery Fuerte avocados and sweetPixie tangerines grown by Jim Churchill, an energetic, funny,brainy guy who spends part of his time trying to introduce localproduce into Ojai’s school lunches. They could get to know Friend’sRanches’ Emily Ayala, a down-to-earth fifth-generation orangefarmer, along with her beautiful Valencias. They could tastepeppery local olive oil and meet tall, gentlemanly Ron Asquith, itsproducer, an industrial psychologist and former OccidentalPetroleum executive now deep in a different kind of oilbusiness.
The market has doubled in size in the past six years, and about40 farmers, most of them local, set up there every Sunday. It’s abig draw for residents and tourists alike. One shopper toldAsquith, “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 thispast January wiped out much of Ojai’s avocado crop and a big chunkof its citrus, costs shot up but shoppers paid anyway. Consideringall that farmers face ― not just the occasional brutalweather, but also expensive land and labor and competition fromimported crops ― it’s amazing that farming in Ojai exists atall. It does, though, because people here want it to. Importedfruit might be cheaper, but Ojai oranges are worth their price.
As for Edible Ojai, it has borne its own kind of fruit: It’s nowgrown into a magazine, and Ryder and Topalian have received callsfrom people all over the country who want to start their ownregional food publications. So today there are 25 newsletters, fromEdible Portland to Edible Boston.
At one of Edible Ojai‘s regular potluck dinners recently, after afeast that finished with citrus popsicles, the talk turned to whatcould be driving this deep interest in food, for farmers andcustomers alike. Lisa Brenneis, a filmmaker and computer whiz who’smarried to Jim Churchill, got to the heart of it: “Food is aboutpeople wanting to communicate with each other, and food does thatat a level that’s beyond words ― it short-circuits theintellect. If you hand someone something you’ve made, it canencapsulate a message about what’s valuable to you. And if they getthe message, it’s at a deep level. It’s like dreaming the samedream.” In Ojai, that can happen.