The typical season for the mandarin harvest is November through January.
But Bob Bonk of Snow's Citrus Court said the last two years haven't been typical at the family-owned and operated citrus grove in Newcastle.
"Last year was our earliest harvest ever in the county and most of us started harvesting the first week in November,” said Bonk. “This year, was even earlier. It was two weeks earlier in about mid-to-late October."
Bonk said the drought has stressed the citrus trees, causing the mandarin fruit to ripen faster.
“It's kind of a double-edged sword,” explained Bonk. “Because the quick ripening forces the sugar to go higher, faster and the acid to cut. So what we're ending up with is a mandarin that is sweeter."
He said the size of the mandarin fruit is a little bit smaller this year, but the harvest is "bountiful."
"Mandarins are commonly referred to as the “zipper fruit” because once they're fully mature the peel just falls away from the fruit and you're not really dealing with having to pull it off piece-by-piece,” said Bonk. “They tend to be sweeter too, our sugar level up here in the foothills typically runs a lot higher than it does elsewhere in the country, if not the world. We grow a premier crop."
Bonk said the Owari Satsuma mandarin trees, which are more cold tolerant, were planted in the family’s grove in 1974.
"One of the benefits that we have here in the foothills is that our trees are older,” said Bonk. “A lot of us have trees that were planted in the 1940s and 50s. And those older, hardier root stocks, handle drought conditions better than the younger citrus trees planted in the mid-to-late 1990s.”
He said most of the Placer County growers have mandarin groves of 5 acres or less, but some are 20 acres or larger.
Bonk said the mandarins are picked for the direct market, not for wholesale, meaning growers can wait until the fruit ripens on the tree.
He said this year's early harvest also means growers don’t have to worry about whether they will have fruit for the annual Mountain Mandarin Festival November 21-23 in Auburn.
Bonk and Placer County mandarin growers say if the drought continues, next year is a concern.
"If we don't get the snowpack for this year, we could certainly see an impact on the crop next year,” said Bonk. “We've been lucky enough that we've gotten some rain in the area the past three years, so we've been able to survive with some groundwater.”