Seeking the sweet life in Gold Country: part I

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mandarinBagFeaturedWhen the November sun rises above Rattlesnake Bar in Newcastle, CA, its glorious rays reach out to kiss the abundance of “mountain candy” growing throughout the foothills. That sweet deliciousness is the Satsuma mandarin at its prime, and growing it in their prime are the owners of both Newcastle Mandarin Ranch and North Fork Mandarins.

For those familiar with the Gold Country foothills, it is no surprise to see business after business springing up at property after property. That’s because so many of these foothill residents are building their retirement businesses. Long gone are the days when many people received their golden handshake and then wrapped their grip around golf clubs as they galavanted into their golden years. Today’s retirees are go-getters, and that’s exactly how you would describe Duane and Lynn Lewis, owners of Newcastle Mandarin Ranch and Russell and Eileen Field of North Fork Mandarins.

Both couples are engaged in the busy time of year now, and both agree they wouldn’t have it any other way. “We have 800 trees on our property,” says Duane Lewis. And he estimates, “Those trees will yield 100,000 pounds of fruit this year.” So this means they are just gearing up.

Duane Lewis and Tracy Howell weigh and bag mandarins
Duane Lewis and Tracy Howell weigh and bag mandarins

They began this business 16 years ago, to follow in the footsteps of Lewis’ belated father, a retired high school teacher and mandarin farmer. With four more years until the trees hit their peak, this retired auto mechanic expects to reap a harvest of 150,000 pounds in a season. When you consider there’s approximately five mandarins to a pound, that adds up to a lot of mandarins.

When asked why they chose to ranch mandarins, Lewis quips, “Mandarins produce much better than horses — fertilizer just doesn’t pay.”

Russell Field, a retired Locomotive Engineer for 43 years, has a different reason. “I had five acres and was growing stickers for five years, so (the business) grew because I was tired of mowing weeds,” he laughs. He says he made the decision to grow mandarins because, he chuckles, “It’s the least labor intensive product.” (This reporter looks at him as if he were crazy, because mandarin farming is extremely hard work).

He further explains, “When compared to grapes, apples, and peaches, mandarins are easier. I don’t spray, and you don’t have to prune. But I do, so they look pretty.” He quickly adds, “And so it’s easier for me to weed eat around them.”

Field says that when he decided to commit, he knew he needed help to learn the art of farming mandarins. He went to several local growers and he didn’t get the warm welcome of advice, but then he met Loren Lewis of Magnolia Hill Orchard. He describes Lewis as a “kind, conscientious and caring man,” someone he respects greatly. Field says Lewis took the time to explain things and advise him, mostly during his first year of crop growing, and he will never forget the generosity of Lewis’ mentoring to help him get his first crop going. “He taught me how to water and how far apart to space the trees, and anytime I needed to ask, he was [willing to help teach].”

Field says the funny thing was that he didn’t even know at the time that Lewis was actually the father of Duane Lewis, his Newcastle Mandarin Ranch neighbor.  (to be continued)

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