History of Our Farm
“Friend” is a family name.
It began with George and Sarah Beers whose daughter Annie married William Friend and had 6 children in the late 1800′s: George Elmer, Inez, Ellen, Jennie, Velma, and Henry
In the 1940′s George Elmer had 2 daughters, Aleta and Anne
Anne married Tony Thacher and had 2 children in the 1970′s, George and Emily
George married Marcia and now has 3 children, Matthew, Andrew and Mariana. Emily married Tony and have two children, Oliver and Celeste.
Five generations of the Friend family have lived and farmed in Ojai (the sixth generation is still too young to have made career decisions, but they do enjoy running amuk in the orchards).
It all began with George Beers who worked as a cooper on a ship transporting wine from Madeira and England. One day he left his ship in Seattle and made his way down the coast to Ventura County (he had planned to look for gold in Bodie, but liked Ventura so much that he stayed). In 1869 his wife Sarah and daughter, Annie, joined him in California coming from Devonshire England. Beers settled in Saticoy and had a hauling business with a horse team.
The company was quite successful until 1883 when Beers was drowned while fording the Santa Clara River. After his death, his widow and daughter went back to England for a year before returning to Ventura County. Accompanying Sarah and Annie on their return trip was William Friend, a neighbor from Kingsbridge, England, who married Annie in 1884.
Sarah Beers settled in Ojai and bought approximately 67 acres on Ojai’s Grand Avenue (including the land where San Antonio School lies). The land was open to homesteading, but the widow did not want any trouble with squatters, so she purchased the land outright from the government for $2.50 per acre. Of the original acreage, Annie and William Friend purchased 13 from Mrs. Beers.
Early settlers of Ojai experimented planting various kinds of crops. There were tree crops of olives, almonds, apricots and citrus. Planted acreage was of course much smaller than it is today, in part due to the fact that land was not yet cleared, labor was in short supply, and each family had to have land available to grow household vegetables, fruit, hay and grain. Families also had cows, chickens, hogs and everything else to enable them to be self-sufficient.
Early Citrus Growing
In 1891 Annie and William began to plant orange trees. As orange trees were planted throughout the Ojai Valley, they became more and more of a cash crop. Each farmer had to pick and pack his own oranges and haul them to the pier in Ventura where they were sent to the Bay Area. The oranges were individually wrapped in tissue paper and packed in wooden crates with the growers’ name and brand stenciled on each box. William Friend’s brand was “Rancho Escondido”.
Valencia oranges were the most commonly planted variety of citrus at the time, with a spattering of lemons. Fruit was generally picked before the hot summer months, as trees without fruit require less water. Water was in short supply as deep wells had not yet been dug. Trees were individually watered by hauling water by horse and using buckets. Some farmers living close to streams were able to divert water while the streams ran.
The two main foes of Ojai citrus farmers were water and freezes, which to some extent holds true to this day. In 1913 and 1937 there were terrible freezes in the Valley. The big freeze of 1913 destroyed most of the citrus crops, but not W.J. Friend’s! He burned his entire hay crop and firewood supply and kept his oranges warm enough from being destroyed by freezing temperatures. By the time of the next freeze, in 1937, smudge pots had been installed.
Packing and marketing Ojai citrus was another difficulty as the valley was far removed from the populated areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco. William was one of the ranchers in Ojai who instigated the building of a citrus packinghouse in Ojai at the end of the railroad line located at the south end of Bryant Street. He became a founding member of the Ojai Orange Association. The Association, with its packinghouse picked, packed and marketed its members’ oranges under the Sunkist label.
Annie and William Friend had 6 children. Their son George, or as he was more commonly known, Elmer, worked on the Ojai Orange Association’s picking crew, first as a picker, then as the field foreman. In addition to that position, he also helped with orchard maintenance and development on the family ranch, and soon was taking care of other orchards as well.
William Friend died in 1932 and the responsibility of caring for the fairly extensive plantings fell on his 2 sons, Henry and Elmer. After Henry passed away in the late 1940’s, Elmer was solely in charge of the orchard care. “It was a lot of hard work in those days, clearing the brush and hauling things.”
Elmer Friend’s Ranches
Luckily, Elmer did take a little time off work and eventually met Florence Johnston. “Joni” was a native of Belfast, Ireland, and first came to Ojai at the beginning of the depression in 1929 to be the tutor-governess for the Pratt family. In 1940 Joni and Elmer married and in time had 2 daughters, Anne and Aleta, who both continue to reside in Ojai and work in agriculture on their father’s land.
Elmer was frugal with his money and saved when he could in order to buy more properties for his citrus ranch. His initial land purchase before marrying was 10 acres off Reeves road that he bought from his brother Henry’s widow. In 1941 Friend expanded his land holdings by buying 20 acres off Fordyce Road that he had previously helped the Newsome family clear and plant to citrus. Both of these properties are still with the business today.
After Elmer acquired the land on Fordyce, he built his home where he, his wife and 2 daughters lived. In the 60’s and 70’s he bought several other properties, including a frost-free parcel on Highway 33 at the base of Sheldon Canyon where our packinghouse still resides. Elmer eventually formed Friend’s Ranches Incorporation with his various parcels of land.
Elmer was always experimenting with what to plant. Prior to the 1940’s Elmer planted Dancy tangerines on his Reeves Road property. In the late 1940’s citrus farming became unprofitable with the marketing channels that had been in place.
In order to increase his profit margin Elmer picked and hauled his crops to an independent packer in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. Fruit that Friend’s Ranches was unable to pick and pack was sold to Sunkist. With the decline in orange prices, Elmer thought further about other citrus varieties he could grow well in the Ojai Valley and how he could market them.
After acquiring the Sheldon property he planted several different varieties of tangerines including Dancys, Satsumas and Pixies. At the time, the most commonly marketed variety was the Dancy tangerine (which is still grown and sold by Friend’s Ranches). The Ojai Packinghouse and Sunkist houses were not interested in packing and wholesale marketing of tangerines, so in 1966 Elmer built his own packinghouse on highway 33, one canyon up from where the current packinghouse stands.
Unfortunately the original packinghouse washed away in the ’69 floods, along with the cashbox and much of Elmer’s equipment. Elmer immediately called upon his family to help out. Aleta was in Ojai at the time and Anne was called down from Berkeley where she was residing with her husband, Tony Thacher. With the help of his daughters and son-in-law, a new packinghouse was built and new trees were planted where some had washed away.
Anne, Tony and Aleta all worked for the ranch through the seventies, eighties and nineties. Since the 1969 floods, Anne and Tony have lived on the ranch where they raised 2 children, George and Emily. Aleta moved into her grandmother’s house (the homestead house where Elmer and his siblings were born and raised) where she raised her son Robert. Since they began to walk, talk and eat citrus, Robert, George and Emily have all helped with daily operations on the ranch.
For many years the packinghouse ran 7 days a week, keeping the family plus 5 people employed full time. During the busy season, from Thanksgiving through March more people were hired. Unlike larger packinghouses, Elmer’s operation allowed for the crop to be picked on demand, making the supply last and ensuring that the fruit was picked at the height of its maturity.
During the time the packinghouse was operating, about ¼ of Friend’s fruit was sold retail, the rest wholesale to markets in Los Angeles, Oxnard and San Francisco. Excess fruit was sold to Sunkist. With the success of his independent packinghouse, Elmer was able to repurchase 24 acres of his grandmother’s original homestead in the 1970’s. In 1979 Elmer was named farmer of the year by the Farmers’ Market in San Francisco.
As Elmer’s ranch expanded he needed help working the land. In the 70’s he hired 2 brothers, Felipe and Reyes Estrada from Colima, Mexico. Felipe and Reyes have been indispensable on the ranch, doing a majority of the fieldwork including tree planting, irrigation and picking. Felipe retired in 2007 while his younger brother still works for us.
In the 1980’s Felipe’s son, Lupe, came to the ranch to work. Lupe’s wife, Angela, began working at the packinghouse making juice in 1996. Lupe and Angela have raised 2 sons on the ranch and they often all go together to farmers’ markets.
Friend’s Ranches Currently
Elmer dropped out of school at age 12 to work. He worked daily for 79 years and while packing fruit in his own packinghouse he passed away on a Sunday morning in August of 1988. His daughters Aleta and Anne inherited his ranches and continued running the ranch as Elmer had for several years after his death. Major changes in the produce industry and economics led them to scale-down the packing operation and in 1997 the farm stand was closed and orange packing ceased. As family goals differed, the ranch was eventually split so that Aleta could own her share and Anne hers.
Aleta and Robert kept the old homestead land which is farmed with oranges and Ojai Pixie tangerines, but Aleta's true love was for horses. Sadly Aleta passed away in 2018 from a brief respiratory illness leaving Robert and his partner Charlotte to own and operate Friend’s Boarding Stable and Orchard, a separate entity from Friend’s Ranches. If you ever need a place to keep your horse, mule or pony, this is the best in the Valley!
Anne, Tony, George and Emily continue growing citrus under the Friend’s Ranches name. We continue to pack tangerines for wholesale markets and pack fruit and juices for farmers’ markets. Since 2007 we have revitalized our mail order business which runs from January through May, during our busy tangerine season. Elmer’s aspiration of having a packinghouse for tangerines lives on as we sell more Ojai tangerines than ever!
Anne, Tony and Emily live on the ranch and run daily operations. George and his family live in Ojai. Lupe and his family continues to live on the ranch and do a majority of the fieldwork as well as helping with sales at the farmers’ markets.
We thank you for your interest in Friend’s Ranches and we hope you find our fruit as delicious as we do!!