*Originally Published 4/28/2016
February in Colorado isn’t the most summery of months and usually not providing of the most ideal road trip conditions but it is the best month of the year to get fresh oranges from those areas in the United States that grow citrus. We haven’t historically gone straight to the orchard to get our citrus for Absinthe Orange Deliciousness, since it’s a bit of a haul from Denver and instead we have used a great local distributor of fresh fruit that comes in from all over North and Central America. It’s good fruit, we wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t, but we value our direct relationship with our farmer for the Colorado Whiskey Peach and Colorado Bourbon Cherry so much, that we want to extend that to our other flavors. Besides, it’s the tree ripe, fresh from the branches, oozing with sunshine and warmth fruit that we love the most.
So we buckled up, and hit the road.
I know you are thinking “where are the oranges lady?”, but yes, it’s true, Metro Phoenix, Arizona, The Valley of the Sun, actually has many orange and lemon orchards that have been growing since 1889, 23 years before Arizona even became a state in 1912. Arizona is one of only 4 citrus growing states in the entire US. Texas, California and Florida being the other three. At one point there were as many as 80,000 acres of citrus being grown and the orange blossom season permeated the air of the entire valley several times a year with it’s silky perfume. Sadly as the population boomed, many orchards have been turned into sub divisions. (want to know more.. Arizona Highways Article, UofA Article RingBrothers History)
The ones that remain though are still producing some of the sweetest most delicious citrus you have ever had, and we went to go get some for this years batch of Absinthe Orange Deliciousness.
Jack, RedCampers roadtrip dog in training, and I rolled into the Orange Patch in Mesa, Arizona on a Saturday in late February at 2pm and 85 degrees. Coming straight from Denver, Colorado we weren’t accustomed to such heat and frankly I couldn’t believe that used to be a norm for me. But it felt good. Real good.
Our contact, the farmer we had been on the phone with weekly for the last two months, wasn’t there yet, so we just poked around the groves and production area like we owned the place and took in the orange infused air as if we were in an aromatherapy sauna. Which, I guess, we actually were.
Bins of oranges and lemons sat waiting to be sorted, a single seasonal worker, Robert, boxed oranges of the same size into branded cardboard boxes and another worker pulled a fork lift around us bringing one of those big bins over to the mechanical sorting line.
Robert and I chatted about the process of sorting oranges for size, surface blemishes and coloring, and how to place the fruit into the boxes in a pleasing way until my education was interrupted by the screeching and roller rumbling of the automatic sorting machine that had been fired up to process the forklifts delivery.
With all the ruckus we moved to the source of the noise and found a u-shaped line where oranges were dumped into one end and came out the other in neatly organized bins by orange size, with a mid point for picking out the “seconds” .
At some point in the history of commercial farming, and consumption of fruits and vegetables, we determined that everything had to be the same, and perfect, with those that were not perfect, being labeled “seconds”, and being tossed aside as they weren’t beautiful enough for the public at large. Ideally those rejects were sold to other companies not concerned with looks. Companies like us, jam makers, restaurants, other food manufactures, or even sold for animal feed, but much of the time these pieces are just thrown away.
That’s right, thrown away because it doesn’t look good enough.
“Ugly Fruit and vegetables” is a bit of a grassroots movement now attempting to bring the rejected pieces back into the public consumption and there are even grocery store chains, even WholeFoods that are bringing them in to provide a lower priced option for their shoppers. If you are interested in knowing more about this and other factory food phenomenon that contributes to a massive amount of food waste read this.. http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-ip.pdf
Also related, a fantastic article on food “use by” dates and why it contributes to billions of pounds of wasted food for no reason. That Use By Date is only a “this will taste the best by this date” and is often completely arbitrary. It is definitely NOT a “this is bad after this date” label. In most cases the food is still good for a very, very long time after that date. Especially cupboard foods. Read more about this here.
The beginning of the sorting process; oranges being shaken on the rollers to shake off any debris, leaves, dirt, etc. From here they move down a conveyor belt to the manual sorters.
My new friends looking for the second’s. (shown exiting the building to the right hand side of the photo)
Jack training for his 2nd career.
The sorting mechanism. Oranges roll down a line that that gets wider and wider, allowing oranges to fall into the same size bin. It’s 40 feet long and makes some noise but sure is efficient.
Everyone needs a little coaxing sometimes. Even oranges.
Sunshine in a box.
Meet Alan Freeman. Owner and 2nd generation citrus farmer of Orange Patch.
Mid sorting process the owner, and 2nd generation citrus farmer, Alan Freeman arrived. Tired, but warm and open he brought me to his air conditioned office and educated me on the growth of oranges and when to harvest. I didn’t know oranges stay on the tree after becoming ripe and stay fresh for quite some time, allowing harvest to be less frantic as other harvests where fruit must be picked early to maintain integrity for shipping or before it begins to fall off the tree once ripe. However, oranges have their own idiosyncrasies and the timing of harvesting the orange from the branch is critical in other ways. It simply can’t be picked early and let it ripen later like many fruits. “It’s ripe when I tell you it’s ripe and not before.”-Mother Nature. Oranges and lemons will NOT ripen after being picked from the tree. Period. He also made me aware that citrus trees often have both blossoms and ripe fruit on the tree at the same time, as citrus fruit trees are evergreens..never going dormant, and take 9–12 months from flowering to ripe fruit. Fascinating right? We thought so. Jack and I. Mostly me.
Alan conveyed to me the challenges of being a farmer telling me stories of how over the years he’s added other crops to take to local farmers markets to make ends meet, gambling on heritage sweet corn over more main stream corn, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, but always exhausted after working the fields then selling at stands only to start again the next day. He closed our conversation telling me how difficult it is to continue the tradition with economic pressures and the temptation to sell the orchards to encroaching real estate developers. Now in the middle of suburbia this orchard is literally divided by the Interstate, cars whizzing by enroute to their cul de sac homes behind gates.
I for one am so thankful he bears on, and continues the ever decreasing tradition of citrus farming in Arizona, Valley of the Sun. The fruit we brought home from his farm for this years production of Absinthe Orange Deliciousness was nothing short of spectacular. The best oranges we have ever had in our kitchen and we know it makes a difference in our recipe. We hope you think so too, and if you are ever in Mesa, Arizona, please stop by Orange Patch for fresh oranges, lemons, pecans, corn and other vegetables and support this family run operation and encourage them not to give in to just another subdivision development. The heritage of citrus farming in Arizona is suffering for it.
With the car fully loaded with 600 pounds of straight off the tree navel oranges bursting with Arizona sunshine, we eased out of the parking lot and pointed the car north as a fiery red sunset started to form low in the sky.
Maura g (& Jack)