"Come on, baby," coaxed one man, with eyes skyward, in the midst of an orchard. "I want you."
Roger Peterson of Woodland Hills was talking to an orange. A Valencia, to be exact.
Awkwardly wielding a long-handled picker, the 62-year-old grandfather made his first attempt at harvesting oranges, and he was using every bit of persuasion he had.
"We thought it would be fun to do after church, to come and share fellowship with the trees," Peterson said with a laugh, explaining why he and four other family members, including his 4-year-old grandson, were in the middle of a 5-acre orchard Sunday talking to the fruit.
About 1,500 others braved the muggy, 100-plus-degree weather to pluck oranges off the branches at Orcutt Ranch on Saturday and Sunday. It's an annual event that follows every Fourth of July holiday, said Brad Haynes, maintenance supervisor at the ranch, a 24-acre historical and cultural center in West Hills.
At the ranch, operated by the Los Angeles city Department of Recreation and Parks, a variety of fruits and vegetables are grown and harvested at various times throughout the year by the public for a modest fee. White grapefruit will be ready for picking about November or December, Haynes said.
Juan Campos, 29, of Canoga Park said a dozen family members converged on the trees Sunday to gather the fruit because they prize its fresh flavor.
"It's much sweeter than anything you can buy in the stores," said Campos, stretching to reach for a particularly plump specimen. "Unfortunately, I didn't bring a ladder, and I'm about a foot short."
But an even better reason for being there, Campos said, is that, "it's fun for the kids. It's nice to get out into the fresh air and to get away from city life for a little while.".
Asked what he was going to do with all the fruit they were gathering, Campos' son Marco, 10, answered simply, "I'm going to eat them."
Height was no obstacle for Gloria Regalado, 40, of Reseda. A 20-year Valley resident who regularly attends the yearly orange-picking session, she nimbly climbed up into a tree to get to the fruit near the top. "We come here all the time," she said, motioning to three friends who caught her offerings below.
Martin and Martha Fuentes of North Hills brought their three children, ages 4, 5 and 6, "to enjoy the fun and get a feeling for the fields," Martin Fuentes said. "Besides, we all like orange juice."
The charge for picking the fruit was $2 for a shopping bag full and $5 for a medium-size box. Fruit pickers--which have a pronged wire basket on the end of a long wooden handle--were rented for $3. Proceeds are used to buy flowers, tools and equipment for the park.
Besides the public picking sessions, the ranch invites volunteer organizations throughout the year to harvest fruits and vegetables that are distributed to homeless shelters. "We have a lot of food, and it's always nice to help out," Haynes said.