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Rain thins festival crowd but doesn’t dampen yen for mandarins

By: Gloria Young,
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The skies were gray but on the ground at the Gold Country Fairgrounds netted bags of bright orange mandarins and umbrellas in an array of hues provided plenty of color for the Mountain Mandarin Festival in Auburn Saturday.
At the Newcastle Mandarin Ranch booth, a steady stream of visitors dodged raindrops to snap up 5- and 10-pound bags of the citrus. Behind the counter, employee Bill Wharton wasn’t discouraged by the wet weather.
“Look around, there’s no dust,” he said.
Bumper crop and lean years seesaw for local Satsuma mandarin growers and can even vary from farm to farm during the same season.
“This is a good year,” Wharton said. “The fruit is much sweeter than it was last year. It has been great weather for the fruit — a hot summer and some cool in the fall.”
Although attendance was down because of the rain, “sales are very good,” he said. “People who are here came to buy.”
Among those there to buy were Mark and Tamara Crisman of Meadow Vista, who purchased two 10-pound bags.
“We love mandarins,” Tamara Crisman said. “We love (the festival) and we kind of like bad weather anyway.”
At the Chico Bean food truck, Yuba City resident Janet Soli was advertising “all things mandarin.” That included butternut mandarin soup, hot dogs with mandarin cole slaw, sweet mandarin iced tea and a smoothie made with peaches and mandarins.
“We’re here every year,” she said. “My educational background is in food and marketing and I just love to cook.”
Soli said she always puts together a special menu to reflect a particular food event.
“(Because of the weather) the hot mandarin soup is going really well and the hot drinks,” she said.
Festival Executive Director Gary Gilligan, who was wearing bright orange clogs, said he estimated attendance was down about 50 percent Saturday because of the rain — but that wasn’t dampening enthusiasm and crowds for Friday were at normal levels.
“You play it day to day,” he said. “Everything in my control is going great. You can’t control the weather.”
He had closed the children’s rides and the rock wall for safety concerns. Other than that, it was all running full speed ahead. Thanks to a plentiful, early ripening crop, there were 16 mandarin vendors, a big boost from last year’s five growers — because the fruit wasn’t ready at festival time.
“We’ve had as many as 20 (mandarin vendors),” he said.
He estimated that growers sell a couple of tons of mandarins during the festival’s three days.
Visitors also flock to the activities and the many other vendors selling food and gifts.
“So far in our 19 years, we’ve raised $380,000 for local nonprofits,” Gilligan said.
He has been associated with the festival since its second year and this was his seventh year in charge.
“I’m a staff of one,” he said. “At festival time we get volunteers. We’ve had 60 volunteers that pull shifts. I have my friends and family — about 20 of them — who take on responsibilities during the festival.”
For the Pahl family, mandarins were at the top of their to-do list. Jo Pahl, visiting from Tracy and her daughter Nicole Pahl, from Monterey, joined Weimar resident Jill Pahl and her husband at the fairgrounds.
“We have three bags of mandarins — 30 pounds — in the car already,” Jo Pahl said. ”We wanted to make sure they didn’t run out like they have before.”
Near the exit, Orangevale resident Mary Ann Walton stopped by the Master Gardener booth on her way out as she pulled a cart filled with bags of mandarins.
“I come here every year,” she said. “I like to buy the fruit and some of the handicrafts, and I talk to the growers about some of the problems with my fruit trees.”
The mandarin festival continues from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at the Gold Country Fairgrounds in Auburn.
Reach Gloria Young at gloriay@goldcountrymedia.com.