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Mandarins get last hurrah of the season

By: Michelle Miller, Journal Features Editor
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Time is running out to get your hands on Placer County's most notable citrus fruit: the Mandarin orange. Mandarin supplies are running short after what many said was a great season. But a handful of orchards will remain open for the last two weekends of the Mountain Mandarin Tour (Saturday and Sunday and Jan. 13-14). With rain-free skies forecast for this weekend, it's the perfect chance to get your hands on those orange globes. "We have a few orchards located in the Penryn and Newcastle areas that are still open," said Nancyjo Riekse, agriculture marketing director for Placer County. The Mountain Mandarin Tour, which has run since the begining of Mandarin season in November, has encouraged agricultural tourism throughout the harvest with art displays, cooking demos and farm tours. "Word's gotten out that Mandarins aren't just available at the festival," Riekse said, referring to the popular Mountain Mandarin Festival held at the Gold Country Fairgrounds in November. Although there are normally 22 growers on the tour, Riekse said only a few of the larger orchards still have citrus supplies - Hillcrest Orchards, Miller's Citrus Grove and Highland Orchard, all in Penryn, and Magnolia Hill Orchard in Newcastle. "They have the largest amount of land and trees and are some of our oldest groves," Riekse said. The upgraded Mountain Mandarin Grower's Association's Web site (www.mountainmandarins.com) has seen a lot more hits this year - 140,000 in November over 29,000 in November of 2005, she said. And that's been translating to foot traffic on the farms and sold-out mandarin crops. "It's a huge crop for us, but we won't know sales until the end of the year," Riekse said. "We do have a lot of growers who are selling out." Riekse said the Mandarins are still selling well and are still quite tasty. "I just picked up some excellent Hillcrest mandarins to take to the Sierra Nevada Conservancy for Gov. Schwarzenegger's inauguration," she said. Placer County Mandarins are definately on the map, said Hillcrest Orchard co-owner Steve Pilz. The late folk singer John Denver bought some Hillcrest Mandarins and Pilz said he managed to ship four boxes to the troops in Iraq this season. And there's still more coming - Mandarins continue to be plucked from the branches at Hillcrest Orchard, Pilz said. "It's been a fabulous year because of the lack of rain and fog, and also people's enthusiasm for buying," said Pilz, who is also the president of the Mountain Mandarin Growers Association. Many growers will be transitioning into other crops until the Mandarins reappear later this year. "The (Mandarins) are coming to the end and selling out, said Tony Aguilar of Highland Orchard. "It's all ending. There's just a handful of guys open." Aguilar said he usually takes a break from Mandarins in January and February until he starts the pruning, irrigation and mowing that will set the stage for the next crop. "We have more fruit this year, next year we'll be lighter," he said. "The crop is really good this year. The fruit is sweet, nice color. We've had above average quality and quantity so it's really worked out well, and it's been great for the consumer." Although people from miles around have taken the tour, Aguilar said it'll be a while before the tour has the reputation of, say, Apple Hill. "It's a work in progress," he said.a "It's great fun for people who live in town to come out and look at the orchards." The Journal's Michelle Miller can be reached at michellem@goldcountrymedia.com.
Mandarin tours: Where to stop
108 - Magnolia Hill Orchard
7370 Ridge Road, Newcastle. (916) 663-3739. Open Daily 9 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
114 - Hillcrest Orchard
956 Clark Tunnel Road, Penryn. (916) 663-3603. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
115 - Miller's Citrus Grove
6609 English Colony Road, Penryn. (916) 765-3264. Open 8 a.m. tp 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
116 - Highland Orchard
2170 Aguilar Lane, Penryn CA 95663 (916) 663-3897 Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday though Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
For a complete listing of growers, visit www.mountainmandarins.com. Call ahead to check availability of Mandarins.