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In the VALLEY of the CHERRIES

TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

In the Middle Ages--and until recently in some parts--the cherry fair was a great festival. People wandered about the orchards; the fruit was picked and sold; there was dancing, drinking and making love (a few years ago there were still some old people in our Wiltshire village with birthdays nine months after). . . .

--"Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book”

It’s probably safe to go back to the Leona Valley now. The cherry fair was last weekend, although the wandering, picking, selling and all the rest of it will last until about the Fourth of July. Not to worry. About as licentious as anything gets out here is a second helping of the splendid peanut butter pie they make at Jackie’s, the local diner.

Of course, if the only cherries you’ve ever eaten were the standard industrial variety, the whole notion of a cherry fair must be pretty mysterious. After all, it’s pretty hard to work up much romance about a tiny, rock-hard fruit that’s been trucked all the way from Washington.

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But really ripe cherries are a fruit apart. They’re deep red, burnished almost to black when dead ripe--the kind of ripe you almost never see anymore, even at farmers markets.

When you pick one of these cherries and pop it into your mouth, the flavor is mouth-filling--an explosive combination of sweet and tangy. The texture is delicate and almost silky. It’s a shock to remember that cherries are not supposed to crunch when eaten. The only problem is that you have to go get the cherries from the trees yourself--though for some people that’s the fun of it.

In Southern California, the center of the U-Pick cherry universe is the Leona Valley, a tiny community atop the San Andreas fault, just a ridge away from the dusty sprawl of Palmdale.

If it wasn’t for a happy conjunction of climate, economics and personality, the Leona Valley might be just another anonymous rural outpost biding its time, waiting to be swallowed up by the city that surrounds it.

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But for thousands of urban dwellers, the Leona Valley means cherries, and once a year, every year, they load their minivans with kids, cousins and a good picnic lunch and make the trek up through Canyon Country to one of the 30-odd U-Pick cherry farms. To wander among the trees. To harvest some fruit. To see food at its source. To take part in the age-old celebration of the coming of summer.

Visiting the orchard of Don Hobart, one of--if not the--oldest growers in the area, the lure is easy to understand. Tasting one of his cherries and walking away is next to impossible. This is more than a human weakness. When the breeze picks up through the trees, there’s a pinging and tinkling of dozens of pie plates hung to keep away hungry birds.

“That noise keeps them antsy,” says Hobart, a friendly, rumpled man. “I don’t want to keep them from pecking; in addition to eating some cherries, they eat a lot of the bugs that could cause trouble. I just want to keep them from overdosing.”

He’s so solicitous of his birds--the whole Leona Valley, he says, is a bird country club--that one Bing cherry tree may not even be picked this year. There’s a dove’s nest in it, and if the fledglings aren’t flying by the time its cherries are ripe, they say they’ll rope off the tree, which they call Mother’s Tree.

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Hobart, a retired Los Angeles City fireman, and his late mentor Abe Shapiro planted trees on a 5-acre lot in 1959, well before anyone in the little valley ever dreamed of cherry fairs. At that time the only cherries in the area were almost accidental, just a couple of trees in somebody’s yard. But that was enough to let Hobart and Shapiro know that, despite the firm advice of the county farm agent, cherries could be grown here.

Before that, Shaprio had grown cherries in Cherry Valley, out near Banning, on the road to Palm Springs. “There were a lot of cherries there in those days,” Hobart says of Cherry Valley. “But not anymore. We went through enough of those 110- to 120-degree days that would just cook the cherries like raisins, and then we started looking around.”

They discovered the Leona Valley. “This place is really ideal,” Hobart says.

Cherries are a tough fruit to grow, especially in Southern California. It’s a small miracle that the Leona Valley does as well as it does.

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Cherries need a certain amount of elevation in Southern California to get the winter cold they need to set fruit. Hobart says 2,500 to 3,500 feet is optimal and, while that kind of altitude is scarce, his orchard is at 3,200 feet. Cherries also need water, which--thanks to wells--is not in as short supply in the valley as it is the rest of the region.

But even under the best of circumstances, cherries are a notoriously fickle fruit.

Obstacles that might be molehills for other tree fruit turn into mountains with cherries. Too much cold in the spring; too little cold in the winter. Too much rain; not enough rain. Sun; clouds. To get a good cherry crop, everything must be just so.

In Southern California, everything rarely is. The last two years, for example, have been true torture for cherry growers. Last year, almost the entire region was just about wiped out by the spring storms that washed out the pollination period.

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This year, an exceptionally warm winter hindered fruit formation in much of Southern California, with the Leona Valley being just about the sole exception. Even on the other side of Palmdale in Valyermo the season is bad. And to the north, in the commercial cherry orchards of the San Joaquin Valley, the combination of warm winter and rainy spring has put a serious dent in the harvest.

At the same time, cherries aren’t normally so scarce that they bring much of a premium. Hobart is selling his cherries for $1.50 a pound this year. To put it mildly, running a U-Pick is not wildly profitable. No one would ever mistake these guys for big-time agribusinesses. Until three years ago, the phone number for the Leona Valley Cherry Growers Assn. hotline was the corner grocery.

*

Tom Miller, a retired studio makeup artist who runs a U-Pick behind his home just down the road near Lake Hughes, says last year was pretty typical for him as far as economics go. His four acres of cherry trees grossed about $5,000, but when he finished doing his books, his total profit was exactly $186.

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“Not much of a business, is it?” he asks, smiling.

Although many of the growers would bristle at being called hobbyists--they do, after all, take their fruit very seriously--most are either working at or are retired from other jobs (there seems to be a high percentage of former L.A. County employees).

They were drawn to the area by its rural nature and, since all of the home sites are zoned for at least two acres, they kind of got into cherry growing though the back door--literally, in most cases. Most of the U-Pick ranches are in people’s yards. Although Hobart doesn’t live on his ranch, he does live on a similar spot not far away. In his backyard, are peaches, nectarines, Asian pears and pecans . . . anything but cherries.

Cherry Growers Assn. President Ron Bright, who has a construction business on the side, ran a poultry ranch on his property for several years before switching to cherries.

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“Chickens . . . I’d had enough of that,” he says. “I think this is a good little business. You’re not committed year-round; a lot of the chores like pruning and spraying you can pretty much do at your leisure. You’re really only a prisoner of the business for the six weeks a year when you’re picking.”

Still, there are downsides to running a U-Pick. For one, a smart commercial operator would quickly put in some cost controls. Some city pickers seem to be able to eat almost as many as they pick.

“You can always tell when they’re there,” Hobart says. “They go out in the trees for a half-hour before you hear the first plink when they put a cherry in their bucket.”

And, unfortunately, some pickers aren’t as careful with the trees as they might be. Cherry trees have a thin skin rather than rough bark, and any damage to that skin opens a hole for bugs and disease. Also, cherry branches grow rather slowly, and an overambitious picker can easily pull down two or three years of limb while trying to get at the last cherries.

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But, Hobart says, “the really critical thing is liability insurance. Any time you’ve got folks climbing ladders, it gets expensive.”

It’s so bad, he says, that insurance companies have stopped writing new policies for U-Picks with ladders. Farmers have to buy dwarf trees that, even when planted very closely, don’t come close to the same yield as larger trees.

And then there’s the entertainment. Bright brings in pony rides to help draw pickers to his orchard, but then he’s got 20 acres that have to be picked.

“We do everything we can to build our customer base,” he says. “We like to say our customers aren’t just coming to pick fruit, they’re coming to see us. You make a lot of friends doing this. We get Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad and all the kids. It’s an outing. It’s really something special to see.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Where to Pick ‘Em

A Guide to U-Pick Cherry Ranches

Leona Valley Ranches

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* Sweet cherries are ready. Pie cherries will be ready at end of June. Most ranches are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends only. Larger ranches are open during the week. For more information, call the Leona Valley Cherry Assn. hotline: (805) 266-7116.

* Directions (from the south): Take the Golden State Freeway north to the Antelope Valley Freeway. Go 25 miles to the Palmdale exit. Turn left on Palmdale Boulevard, which turns into Elizabeth Lake Road, then travel 10 miles into the heart of Leona Valley. At 90th Street, you can pick up a map at the Rancher’s Market or just follow the signs from there to the orchards.

Orchards on Elizabeth Lake Road:

(Stay on Elizabeth Lake Road past 90th Street going west.)

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* Pitchfork Ranch (open as the cherries ripen)

* Sky Meadows Orchard (open as the cherries ripen)

Orchards on 90th Street:

(From Elizabeth Lake Road, turn left onto 90th Street and drive just past Leona Avenue.)

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* Cherry Pit Ranch (open as the cherries ripen)

* Rhodes Ranch (open as the cherries ripen)

* Waters Cherry Ranch (open)

Orchards on Leona Avenue:

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(At 90th Street, turn left and travel one block to Leona Avenue; turn right to reach the ranches.)

* Big John’s Cherries (open)

* Bright Ranch (open after June 8)

* Judge’s Cherries (open as the cherries ripen)

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* Phelan’s Cherry Hill Ranch (open as the cherries ripen)

Orchards on 95th Street:

(At 90th Street, turn left and travel one block to Leona Avenue. Take a right and travel two blocks to 95th Street. Turn left; the ranches are up the hill.)

* Berger’s Cherry Ranch (open as the cherries ripen)

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* Harry’s Sour Cherries (open end of June)

* Hobart’s Sweet Cherries (open

* Owl’s Roost Ranch (open as the cherries ripen)

* Rex’s Sweet Cherries (open after June 8)

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Orchards on 87th Street:

(At 90th Street, turn left to Leona, then turn right on 87th.)

* Blackie’s Bings (open as the cherries ripen)

* Perez’s TJ Ranch (open as the cherries ripen)

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Other Orchards off Leona or 90th Street:

* Cherry Tyme Sour Pie Ranch, 107th Street (open end of June)

* Chuck’s Cherries, 92nd Street (open as the cherries ripen)

* Cottonwood Farms, Penhaven Street (open as the cherries ripen)

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* Leona Valley Pie Cherry Ranch, 107th Street (open end of June)

* Northside Cherries, Northside Drive (open as the cherries ripen)

* Valle View Orchard Ranch, Valle View Road (open as the cherries ripen)

* Wade’s Cherry Mart, Lonesome Valley Road (open after June 15)

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Lake Hughes:

* Directions (from the south): Take the Golden State Freeway north 5 miles past Magic Mountain to the Lake Hughes Road turnoff. Travel north on Lake Hughes Road for 22 miles (it’s a canyon road, so drive slowly) until it ends. Take a left onto Pine Canyon Road. Travel one-quarter mile. The Miller ranch is around the first bend.

* Miller’s U-Pick Sweet Cherries, 18540 Pine Canyon Road, Lake Hughes; (805) 724-1728 (open after June 15)

* BEING BING: NOTES ON CHERRY VARIETIES, H13

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