In myth and lore, everyone knows that once a dragon enters the story, killing the beast or taming it seem to be the only option.
In Ramona, Kevin and Betsy Brixey and their family have definitely chosen to train their dragons — all 1,400 of them.
Their dragons are actually dragon fruit, or pitahaya, a tropical fruit with a colorful thick skin that mimics scales. The Brixeys have been growing the crop on their Ramona ranch, Dragon Delights, for about six years.
Easily grown from seeds or cuttings, pitahaya fruit grows on a type of vining cactus that must be trained to grow up a post or trellis. Otherwise, their heavy mass — up to several hundred pounds at maturity — becomes a scraggly, tangled mess on the ground. Since the plants have aerial roots, it usually doesn’t take much to train them to grow upright.
Kevin Brixey admits he wasn’t too sure about growing dragon fruit at first.
“It was an unusual crop and we didn’t know much about it,” he said.
But after a lot of time spent researching various crops, the family decided the dragon fruit looked like it could grow in Ramona.
“So we thought, ‘why not, let’s give it a go.’ In Feb. 2015, we planted just under an acre of dragon fruit, or about 450 plants.”
In many ways, Ramona is an ideal climate for growing pitahaya. A night-blooming cactus, the popular ornamental plants use little water. Originally from temperate climates such as South America, the plants flower for several nights in long, hot summers, and then produce fruit.
According to numerous reports, dragon fruit is considered to be among the most nutritious fruit available in the market.
Brixey says it’s also a favorite “due to its mouth-watering light, sweet taste and unusual shape.”
Dragon fruit is often described as having the flavor of watermelon and the texture of a kiwi. The tiny, black seeds are crunchy and are usually eaten along with the fruit.
Depending on the variety, the flesh of the fruit can be white, pink, red, purple, magenta or yellow. The varieties have names as exotic as their fruit, with American Beauty, Physical Graffiti and Delight being the most commonly grown.
The fruit can be eaten directly off the vine, mixed in smoothies or juice or used in jellies, salads and ice cream. Dragon fruits are high in fiber, antioxidants, high in vitamins and minerals, such as iron and Vitamin C, and low in caloriesexperts say.
From the start, the Brixeys were looking to grow dragon fruit as a productive crop for the fruit, as opposed to for ornamental purposes.
“For me, the plan from the beginning was to be able to sell to markets. We worked hard at volume and quality. It took about three years to get the volume we were after,” Kevin Brixey said.
A native of Australia, he grew up working first at a small dairy farm and later at a large sheep farm. While working with the sheep, he traveled to the US, and on a 1988 trip, he met his soon-to-be wife his, Betsy. Once back in Australia, they married, and had three children over the next 10 years.
But the farming structure at his work changed, and on a trip back to the US, his father-in-law offered him a job in property management. After the vast open spaces of Oz, the family was looking for property, and in 2000, purchased a 16-acre avocado farm on Highland Valley Road in Ramona.
The wildfires of 2007 wiped out many of the avocado trees, and the family began searching for a different crop. Sometime after that, they also decided to get out of the property management business.
But after living on 1,000-acre sheep and cattle ranches in Australia, the Brixeys were used to thinking big; they planned on their pitahaya crop as more than just a novelty.
Once they were pleased with the volume of fruit from their plants, they decided the market was better for organic produce and became a certified grower.
“We started selling to small farm stands and stores in the beginning, with our aim being for something bigger,” Kevin Brixey said.
It didn’t take long before they were selling their dragon fruit to local stores and farm stands, such as Ramona Family Naturals and People’s Organic Market in Oceanside, and to shops as far away as Los Angeles.
By 2018, Dragon Delights was selling its fruit in Whole Foods.
It wasn’t an easy task — it required the farm to be Good Agricultural Practices Certified. Developed by the USDA, the GAP is a voluntary, user-fee funded independent audit program verifying fresh fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled and stores according to food safety practices minimizing the risks of microbial food safety hazards.
“Whole Foods checks out the packing, the handling, the food safety management—all of it,” Brixey said. “It’s a safe system right through, so they know the fruit isn’t contaminated and is safe. It’s expensive and difficult. But it’s all working towards certifying that the fruit I have and I sell is high quality.”
Growing dragon fruit is labor intensive. Although they plants are pollinated by bats and moths in their native countries, the locally-grown fruit has to be hand pollinated. The fruit must also be picked and packed as soon as it’s ready, Brixey said.
The farm is very much a family affair, and whichever of the Brixeys’ grown children are in town at any given time usually help out. Since all the kids have dual citizenship, they spend a lot of time with their family and friends across the pond, as well as in Ramona.
“My wife, Betsy, helps with the logistics of food handling and serving and more,” Kevin Brixey said. “My son, Leighton and daughter-in-law, Sarina, live in Ramona, with our two grandsons and granddaughter on the way. They were instrumental in getting the farm going on social media. Our other son, Brandon, came back from Australia last year and helps as well.”
The family continues to expand their pitahaya crop and try new varieties.
“We now have 1,400 plants on two acres; seven are varieties that I sell and the rest I’m experimenting with,” Kevin Brixey said.
“I select varieties with high fruiting abilities,” he said. “Physical Graffiti flowered seven different times last summer. Once the plants flower in June or July, you can pick the fruit about 45 days after that. Some varieties are still producing at the end of November or early December.”
Four acres of the family’s ranch are devoted to avocados and another four to native Australian plants, such as proteas and Banksias, with their unique, colorful flowers.
Last year, the family raised the farm to another level by opening it up to the public.
“We decided to have a couple of weekends open so that people could come out and taste the fruit, and see it growing and all the different varieties,” Kevin Brixey said.
In addition to learning about dragon fruit, guests can visit with the family’s pet sheep and llamas, and tour the native Australian plants.
Based on the feedback they received, Brixey said their first Open Days were such a success they plan to continue the event.
Ramona resident Mindy Waldhauser said she enjoyed her Open Day visit.
“I stopped by Dragon Delights and had a great time sampling their fresh fruit, petting the llamas and seeing all the different Leucodendron and Banksia plants,” Waldhauser said. “Their dragon fruit is Certified Organic, and so delicious that I couldn’t decide which flavor, so I got one of each.”
Not only were they able to answer questions about dragon fruit at the event, but to promote fresh, locally grown fruit.
“The dragon fruit available in many super markets comes from other countries and usually doesn’t have much taste,” Brixey said. “Fully ripe, organic dragon fruit straight off the plant tastes so much better, and once people see our plants, they know what they are getting and where it is coming from.”
And just as children love stories of dragons, they also really love dragon fruit.
“The kids are our greatest promoters,” Brixey said. “They really love the dragon fruit and it’s good for them, so their parents love it, too.”
Dragon Delights is at 16479 Highland Valley Road; the farm is closed to the public except on specific days. To learn more, call: 760-443-5256 or visit: www.dragon-delights.com or on Facebook.