Bakersfield, California; Along the Maricopa Highway at the southwestern end of the San Joaquin Valley, rimmed by hardscrabble hills and bobbing oil pumps, stretch miles of lush green groves bearing fluorescent mandarin oranges. Once home to cotton fields, this is now the epicenter of an epic agricultural boom that has industrialized a noble fruit and turned it into a rising star.
Since that expansion started in the late 1990s, California’s mandarin plantings have increased 10-fold, to 50,000 acres from 5,000. The state now harvests 92 percent of the nation’s mandarin crop, while Florida, troubled by citrus greening disease and obsolete varieties with seeds, has had its share drop to 8 percent, from 66 percent.
In the process, thanks to new offerings and deft marketing, mandarins — popularly known as tangerines — have become a fixture in the American fruit bowl. The country’s consumption of mandarins has doubled, to five pounds a year for every American, while orange sales have declined.
Mandarins may seem an unlikely candidate for a marquee fruit. The most complex and flavorful of citrus, they are correspondingly difficult to grow, as demanding as wine grapes in their requirements for terroir and horticultural prowess. At their finest, they are juicy, sweet-tart and intensely aromatic, but many store-bought specimens are dry and bland. Shippers and merchants often store them far past their peak, and the seeds in traditional varieties can put off consumers.
To get the best of the mandarin boom, it helps to understand the fruit’s history, varieties and seasons.
Native to China and northeastern India, mandarins are one of five original types of citrus (along with pummelos, citrons, kumquats and papedas) from which all others, like oranges and grapefruit, are derived. Until recently, because most mandarins were relatively small, delicate or full of seeds, they remained less cultivated than other citrus in the United States.
Several forces converged to ignite the California mandarin boom. Consumers increasingly demanded convenient, easy-to-eat fruits like blueberries and seedless grapes. In the 1970s, Spain started exporting clementines — seedless and easy to peel, with excellent flavor — to the Eastern United States, and that trade increased significantly after a devastating California citrus freeze in 1990.
Two varieties of seedless, easy-peeling mandarins, adapted to mechanized packing, became available to California growers, and horticulturists figured out how to grow seedless clementines, a type of mandarin, in the harsh climate of the San Joaquin Valley.
In the late 1990s, two companies with deep pockets and marketing savvy, Sun Pacific and Paramount Citrus (now Wonderful Citrus), gambled big with huge mandarin plantings on the Maricopa Highway, 25 miles southwest of Bakersfield, where they were isolated from other citrus whose pollen could make the fruit seedy.
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