Mandarin Hill Orchards: A Lifetime Adventure
Frank and Bernice Aguilar began their adventure in 1947 when they married and started a 50-acre farming operation in the small Placer County town of Penryn, California. At that time Placer County was known as the Fruit Basket of the Nation, so it made sense that initially the farm consisted of plum, pear and peach trees along with a few mandarin and other citrus trees that had been planted back in the 1880s by Welsh settlers.
Disaster struck in the early 1950s when a tree disease hit Placer County that killed pear trees all over the region. Within a few days healthy pear trees withered and died. To combat the disease farmers across the county uprooted and burned the dead trees.
Encouraged by their friend Frank Porier, in 1956, the Aguilars decided to replace their other fruit trees with mandarins. The couple planted mandarin trees for the next seven years until their 20-acre mandarin orchard was complete.
These were hard years for the young couple because it takes mandarin trees six or seven years before they begin producing sellable fruit. By now they had two children, Tom and Susan, who helped tend the trees after school, and Bernice took a job with the State of California at the Auburn Dewitt Center in the medical records department to supplement their income.
The years passed and their kids and trees both grew. Although the trees were producing sweet, seedless and delicious mandarins, they found few people in the area had ever heard of mandarins. So they shipped most of the fruit to a Sacramento wholesaler and began giving away the sweet citrus to local friends and neighbors to help spread the word about this easy-to-peel, healthy treat. Word spread rapidly and soon people started buying them not just for themselves, but also to give as gifts and send to relatives in other areas. Life was good.
Then in 1972 Mother Nature threw another curve at the Agulars, this time by way of a winter freeze. One December night was so cold the water pipes, irrigation ponds and mandarin trees all froze. The next day the leaky pipes were repaired and the ponds thawed, but hundreds of mandarin trees were lost. Being intrepid farmers, the family started replanting the next spring. Along with new trees, they installed an overhead irrigation system, which serves a dual purpose of watering the trees and helping to control frost.
There have been many more adventures in the lives of the Aguilars as the decades past, and they have embraced them all with the spirit that only farmers have. Now in their nineties, Frank and Bernice still live at Mandarin Hill Orchards along with their foreman and his family, but Tom now oversees the day-to-day operations. Stop by soon for a visit and start making some orchard adventures for your family.
Tradition Blends With New Technology at Mandarin Hill
The Aguilar family has always embraced new technology. In the 1950s Frank purchased a sizing machine with a couple of other local mandarin farmers to help them sort the fruit and get it ready for the market. This was quite the technological advancement back then.
Over the years the mandarin trees started to show signs of benching, or choking their original rootstock; basically the incompatibility between the tree rootstock and a branch cut for grafting, known as the scion. In 2001, after reading an article about an interarching project that helped save 2,000 orange trees in South Africa, Tom contacted the article’s author, Dr. Lawrence Marais, to see if it might help their aging mandarin trees. Tom learned that, basically, interarching is grafting a seedling onto a parent tree, bypassing the original graft scar, similar to heart bypass surgery. Dr. Marais agreed to come to Penryn, and together they planted 4-5 seedlings per tree, grafting them onto 110 parent trees. The next year they purchased twice as many seedlings to graft to trees. However, with only a small portion of the orchard completed, purchasing seedlings was becoming cost-prohibitive. So Tom started to germinate his own trifoliate seedlings, a high-bred rootstock that grows slowly. Using their own seedlings, the remaining mandarin trees have been grafted and are once again healthy and productive citrus trees
Then, just a few years ago, Tom worked with a Rocklin solar company to install photoelectric solar panels and make the grove the first Northern California mandarin orchard to be 100% solar powered.
Although they embrace the latest advancements in farming, the Aguilars know the importance of traditional methods to ensure the highest-quality fruit possible. That’s why their mandarins and other citrus fruit is still allowed to stay on the trees until it is at its peak of ripeness, then hand-picked to ensure each piece is as sweet and delicious as possible. Try some today and taste the difference of Mandarin Hill citrus for yourself.