Seeking the sweet life in Gold Country: part II

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(continued from part I)

During peak season, these semi-retirees work seven days a week and ten or more hours a day — and no two days are alike. But one thing is for sure: weather plays a heavy factor on the daily tasks. According to Lewis, mandarin farmers “like it when it’s clear and cold, because it provides a [natural]refrigeration on the crop.” Field explains that a little frost is no big deal: “Think about how long it takes to freeze water to make an ice cube.”

Newcastle Mandarins that have passed the rigorous inspection process await shipment.
Newcastle Mandarin Ranch mandarins that have passed the rigorous inspection process await shipment.

They only get concerned when there’s a “hard freeze,” which is caused by temperatures below freezing for eight or more hours. We all know we need the rain, especially in drought-stricken California, but apparently mandarins flourish during the droughts — especially when the climate provides a long, mild spring.

This year, Lewis’ trees experienced triple blooms, when usually they only see one or maybe two. Since the weather in Northern California remained mild for so long this year, more of the fruit was able to develop before the dreaded “June Drop.” Mandarin farmers in the foothills refer to the “June Drop” as the time of year when the weaker blossoms drop off the tree. It’s caused from the heat making the fruit that didn’t have time to develop shrivel and fall to the ground. As a result of more developed fruit, the Newcastle Mandarin Ranch is experiencing one of their top three record-breaking years.

Despite the weather taking a toll on what happens day to day with the process of picking, sorting, bagging and shipping of the fruit, these farmers take it in stride. Northern California recently received some much-needed rain in Gold Country, but Lynn Lewis explains that that causes a bit of a short-term roadblock for them.

“When the rain hits, the fruit cannot be picked when it’s wet.” She continues to explain that it has to dry for a day or two, so you need to be ready for anything and everything. “All farmers are affected by weather, whether it’s a sudden rainfall, or even a drought, because there can be crop damage.”

Being a farmer isn’t easy, and both families believe strongly in providing a quality product. Lewis says, “The buck stops here.” She means this both figuratively and literally — she laughs that they always need to be on the lookout for “deer damage.”

John Rochester, Lynn Lewis' father, checks for imperfections while the fruit is loaded for the bagging process.
John Rochester, Lynn Lewis’ father, checks for imperfections while the fruit is loaded for the bagging process.

Field agrees that deer can wipe out a crop, and they’ve installed extra deer fencing along the perimeter of their orchard. But when it comes to weather, she says they just remain flexible and switch gears. When it’s raining or the fruit is wet, they shift operations to bagging dry previously-picked fruit in order to make use of their time.

Lewis says the hardest part of their seasonal retirement business is that “When the season hits, it moves so fast. It’s concentrated. It’s overwhelming. But in the end, it’s worth it.”

She says she misses having more time with her family during the holidays, but the upside is many of her family members pitch in during the peak season. At Newcastle Mandarin Ranch, you will often see her parents alongside them. Lewis claims her mom is a meticulous packer for their product shipments, and her father, John Rochester, often sorts and bags the mandarins with the youngsters who are hard at work.

They have employees as well, like Tracy Howell, who have been returning every season for almost 15 years — and who are practically family. “It’s a fun job. I like the people I work with and the bosses are pretty cool,” she chuckles, while continuing to bag mandarins and joke with her “cool boss” Duane and her co-workers.

Even their daughter, Kaitlyn Lewis, is on duty, labeling, pricing and setting up displays in the family’s residential store. “I love it. It’s a great opportunity to help my family and I’ve been doing this as long as I can remember. I started out with my grandparents’ farm.” (to be continued)

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