For a vision from a century ago, when farms covered Los Angeles County, there's no better time machine than Blum Ranch in Acton, southwest of Palmdale. Just off the 14 freeway, about an hour north of downtown, its 40 acres of peach and pear orchards are the largest deciduous fruit planting so close to the city. The century-old stone house, the streamlined 1940 tractor, the ancient, creaky trees and the fruit they produce are as defiantly old school as the owners, Ray and Elizabeth Billet.
Elizabeth's grandfather, a Swiss immigrant named George Blum (pronounced "bloom"), homesteaded the property in 1891, obtained precious water rights and planted the first orchard of apples and pears in 1910. She and Ray have farmed the land since they married in 1953 and kept it an authentic working ranch without any tourist hokum.
At the farm's high desert elevation of 3,000 feet, it cools off enough at night for the trees to respire, allowing the fruit to develop full sweetness and flavor. The peaches, sold for less than a dollar a pound at a weathered wooden farm shed next to a packing line, are all older varieties with a classic balance of sweetness and acidity: Fay Elberta in late August; O'Henry and Cal Red in September; and its own specialty, Blum's Beauty, from late September to mid-October.
O'Henry and Cal Red, both introduced in the 1960s, represent the high-water mark of American peach breeding, combining good flavor, productivity and shipping qualities. Both derive rich taste and sparse fuzz from a nectarine parent.
Even though the peach and nectarine are two forms of the same species, Prunus persica, originally nectarines were smaller, with more fibrous flesh and sharper flavor. Since the 1930s, by hybridization with milder flavored peaches, they have lost much of their original wild intensity while gaining better texture and commercial characteristics. Meanwhile nectarines imparted alluring tang to some peaches, like O'Henry and Cal Red. After the 1960s breeders maximized the productivity, red color and shipability of new peach varieties but at considerable cost to flavor, by some accounts.
"Modern peach varieties don't taste like the old ones, and they've ruined the market." says Ray. "They stay hard until they start to shrivel."
From now through October the Billets offer fresh Bartlett pears, which abounded in the high desert before most orchards succumbed to pear decline and cheaper competition from the flatlands. Pears, some of dubious provenance, show up at farmers markets through much of the year, but now is the best time to enjoy the distinctive juicy flesh and musky flavor of Bartlett, the oldest working major commercial fruit variety.
Other local vendors with good Bartletts include David Ha of Tehachapi; Yingst Ranch of Littlerock; and Tenerelli Orchards of Littlerock, which sells pears from its neighbor, George Bones Ranch. For a premium pear experience, Jeffrey Rieger of Penryn brings perfectly conditioned, ready-to-eat Bartletts, to Santa Monica on Wednesday.
For their part, the Billets are so old school, they've never seen the point of selling at certified farmers markets themselves. Last year, however, they did start going to a new uncertified farmers market in Acton, held on Tuesdays from 4 to 7 p.m., at Crown Valley Road and Sierra Highway. Gary Lubben, president of the Acton Chamber of Commerce, which runs the market, said that it will soon become certified by the county and state. The Billets' pears also will be carried by Ha's stand at many certified farmers markets, starting in about 10 days.
The Billets have withstood numerous challenges over six decades, including low wholesale prices, as farms and retail chains consolidated; the Crown fire in 2004, which burned 500 of their trees; and a devastating freeze last year, which spared just a few dozen peaches. After that debacle they were unable to pay for the usual pruning, and on a recent walk through the orchard Ray winced at the sight of broken limbs and high weeds. Blum Ranch has been around for 121 years, but the Billets, who are in their late 70s, are unsure whether their grandchildren will continue to farm it when they retire.
"Kids can make more money elsewhere and not work as hard," says Elizabeth. "We don't have time to dwell on it, but we'd hate to think of having to sell, because of the tradition."
Blum Ranch, 31880 Aliso Canyon Road, Acton; (661) 947-2796; blumranch.com; open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
Tip of the week: Khalal Barhi dates, firm, yellow and crunchy with a sweet coconut flavor, started showing up at farmers markets three weeks ago but were too astringent for most palates until last week. They're perfect now, from DaVall of Indio (at the Burbank, Pasadena, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Hollywood markets); Flying Disc of Thermal (Santa Monica starting Wednesday); and Bautista of Mecca (Torrance, Long Beach Southeast, Santa Monica, Hollywood). Last month's unusual humidity has caused the skins of many dates to crack, says Robert Lower of Flying Disc, but the flavor seems unimpaired so far.