Farmer of the Month: Emily Ayala of Friend’s Ranches

Emily Ayala of Friend's Ranches in the orchard
Emily Ayala of Friend’s Ranches

Emily Ayala’s voice is both exhausted and euphoric. 

“We’re starting the harvest of Ojai Pixies today!” she told The FruitGuys over Zoom on Feb. 28, grinning into the camera. “I’ve been up since 4:30 a.m.” 

We were lucky to snag a few minutes on Emily’s calendar during the harvest of her family farm’s most famous fruit. Friend’s Ranches has grown Ojai Pixie tangerines in California’s Ojai Valley since the 1970s. The small, seedless mandarins are mouthwateringly juicy with a sweet bass note and a pleasant acidic bite. It’s a flavor combination fit for the president’s table — literally.

Ojai Pixies have been served three times that I know of at the Easter Egg Roll at The White House,” Emily told us proudly. “We didn’t ask them to do that, we found out afterward!”

The Making of an Ojai Pixie

A box of Ojai Pixie tangerines in the orchard
Ojai Pixie tangerines after harvest

Pixie tangerines grow beyond the Ojai Valley, but there’s nothing quite like an Ojai Pixie. The Ojai Valley is nestled on the coast of southern California, just north of Ventura and northwest of Los Angeles. Unlike more temperate parts of the state, Ojai experiences extreme daily temperature swings year-round. According to Emily, the valley’s microclimate gives her farm’s fruit its unique acidic top note and high sugar content. 

“Here in Ojai, we can have a 40-degree difference between our daytime and nighttime temperature in the winter,” Emily explained. “That fluctuation from cool to warm — or cool to hot in the summer — makes the flavor develop in our late-season oranges and tangerines.” 

Friend’s Ranches is famous for its Ojai Pixies, but it’s not the only family farm in the valley that grows them. Emily and her father, Tony Thacher, work with local tangerine grower Jim Churchill and roughly 40 other farms to sell Ojai Pixies through their cooperative, Ojai Pixie Packers. 

“I think the largest farm has just 17 acres of Ojai Pixies. We’re all pretty small — and so is our fruit!” Emily said. 

A man on a ladder harvests Ojai Pixie tangerines
Harvesting the 2024 Pixies

Friend’s Ranches used to be one big family farm but expanded and contracted over the decades. Today, it includes four properties run by the descendants of the Friend family and their employees. Emily and her husband, Tony, live at the Newsome Ranch at the east end of Ojai while her parents live at the Sheldon Ranch ten miles west. 

Emily told The FruitGuys that many people assume her husband is the legacy farmer — but in fact, she’s part of a fourth-generation farming family. That assumption is particularly grating because it was Emily’s great-great-grandmother who settled in Ojai and began farming in the first place. 

Because we were talking to Emily just a few days before Women’s History Month, we asked her to share a bit more of that family story.

Friend’s Ranches’ Feminist Beginnings

In 1883, Emily’s great-great-grandfather — a wine cask maker named George Beers — drowned while trying to cross southern California’s Santa Clara River. About a year later, his wife Sarah Beers purchased 67 acres of Ojai farmland from the U.S. government. She paid just $2.50 per acre. Sarah eventually sold 13 of those acres to her daughter and son-in-law: Annie and William Friend. They planted the first orange trees on the property in 1891. 

A truck full of Ojai Pixie tangerines
Trucking away the Ojai Pixie harvest

“The women in the family have always been integral to the running of Friends’ Ranches,” Emily said. “My mother [Anne Thacher] is the president and I’m the vice president.”

She added, “I think that at least in California we’ve come to accept women in all aspects of the working world, and there are plenty of women in agriculture. It used to be I would go to a meeting and be one of two women — now I feel like we’re more like 25%, which is encouraging! We should be 50%, but we also take care of kids and have all of those other jobs. I used to take my newborns to the Sunkist meeting, and there wasn’t anywhere to change the diaper.” 

Emily hasn’t let those hurdles slow her down. Under Anne and Emily’s management, Friend’s Ranches grows forty-eight varieties of citrus (including Valencia oranges, blood oranges, and of course the famous Ojai Pixie tangerines) plus four types of avocado. Many of those fruits, Ojai Pixies included, make their way into FruitGuys fruit delivery boxes

Packing the Ojai Pixies

When The FruitGuys spoke with Emily on Feb. 28, the Ojai Pixie packing line was humming. But just a few weeks prior, she and her team worried about accessing their famous fruit. Heavy winter rains washed out roads in the valley, cutting off access to several Ojai Pixie orchards. 

Friend's Ranches workers stand by a box of Ojai Pixies
Friend’s Ranches workers with their harvest

By the end of February, things were just dry enough that harvest could begin. But a few orchards were still out of reach, a critical bridge remained under repair, and wet soil was making it difficult for pickers to navigate through the trees in their forklifts. Instead of focusing on the negatives, though, Emily rhapsodized about her fruit.  

“The fruit is much prettier this year than it has been in a long time,” she said. “We got a lot of cold weather, which is what causes the fruit to turn really orange. It’s a random scientific thing: The orange pigment is always there, but as it gets cold the tree reabsorbs the green and you see the orange. It’s the same thing that causes fall leaves to turn color.” 

She added that the orchards also escaped the freezing nights, winds, and fires that have caused blemishes in past years. 

“This year it’s just really pretty — all of the growers are proud of the way the fruit looks and tastes, and we hope you guys like it too,” she said. 

Two Decades of Partnership

Here at The FruitGuys, we’re practically dancing in Ojai Pixie anticipation. Soon, we’ll be able to add Ojai Pixie Packers’ gorgeous fruits to our mixes and offer them by the case for delivery to help support Emily and her family.

Ojai Pixie tangerines on the tree
Ojai Pixie tangerines on the tree

We’ve worked with Friend’s Ranches for more than two decades and they always deliver top-quality produce. Although we love many of their other citrus varieties — including their Tahoe Gold tangerines, one of FruitGuys CEO Erin Mittelstaedt’s personal favorites — we always look forward to Ojai Pixie season. The Friend’s Ranches team picks their fruit to order whenever possible, so instead of sitting in cold storage, it goes straight from the field, to the box, to the customer. Talk about fresh! 

“We really try not to have fruit sitting around for more than a couple of days,” Emily said. “We don’t wax it, either — there’s nothing to preserve the fruit except its peel, which does a great job preserving it. Once you add a wax or chemicals to the peel it changes the flavor of the fruit.”

Emily’s dedication to flavor is truly admirable. We’re proud to work with her family farm to provide you fruit with the same taste, quality, and freshness that’s prized in the White House. 

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