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Times Staff Writer

ON A recent Sunday, a friend and I watched as our kids pulled a wooden wagon through a Ventura County field, pausing to gather black-eyed peas and sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes. They ran down rows of raspberry bushes, filling their hats with the ripe fruit. The air rustled the leaves of a row of peach trees; bees hummed on the periphery. Two hours later, the contents of our wagon (weighed out and paid for at the market stand) held enough produce for dinner, for dinners all week. The kids, faces browned by dirt and sunlight, were eating tomatoes as if they were apples; they didn’t want to leave.

If this sounds like your idea of fun, heading out to a U-pick (also called pick-your-own) farm might just be the perfect way to spend a weekend morning. And a fantastic way to get some of the freshest and tastiest produce you’re likely to find.

There are U-pick farms throughout Southern California -- working farms like this one in Ventura County, apple orchards halfway to Palm Springs, unlikely Irvine-area watermelon fields -- and these transitional weeks, as summer leans into fall, are the perfect time to explore them.

Right now you’ll find a last burst of raspberries, ripe tomatoes and pears and the season’s first fragrant apples. In another month, pumpkins will be ready. So gather your boxes, find your sun hats and walking shoes, and head out to the farm.

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Just 30 miles northeast of Encino in Ventura County, Underwood Family Farms, a familiar name from L.A.-area farmers markets, operates two U-pick farms. The main location, in Moorpark, is a 160-acre working farm with plenty of U-pick fields, a large produce stand (you needn’t pick your own), a petting zoo for kids and a just-planted corn maze.

Visitors can pick up a wooden cart, as we did, to pull down the dirt paths between rows of peas, squat peppers, and lettuces like emerald bouquets. Signs indicate the names of the plants, price per pound and whether they’re ready for picking.

Craig Underwood, who owns or leases the land at the Moorpark farm and a second 10-acre farm in nearby Somis, says he’s seen his U-pick farms, as well as those of his colleagues in the business, increase in popularity recently.

“I think it’s picked up in the last couple years; we’re seeing more people come out. People are finding it more important to buy local and eat fresh.”

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Underwood grows for a combination of U-pick, farmers markets (he goes to 12), and the produce stands he runs at each farm. School tours during the week and festivals each October have helped turn the U-pick into a profitable operation.

Northeast of Los Angeles, in the high desert on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains, is a region that a century ago was so filled with pear trees that the main drag is called Pearblossom Highway. Here, the U-pick farms are more far-flung and windblown, less suited to school tours than to pilgrimage.

“We get cold in the winter, the nighttime temperatures drop into the 20s, sometimes lower; it’s the right climate for pears,” according to Nancy Yingst, who says that in recent years farmers have replaced many of the pear trees that fell prey to disease and drought, with faster-growing peach trees.

The Yingst family has farmed in the Antelope Valley on land right off Pearblossom Highway for 23 years. Their fruit trees have been U-pick for “almost the whole time,” Yingst says. “Years ago people used to come and pick large volumes for canning.”

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These days, with rising gas prices, Yingst says that “folks are coming less frequently, but they’re picking more.”

Yingst Ranch is primarily a U-pick operation, though it sells picked fruit (at a slightly higher price per pound than the U-pick) and the Yingsts sell at four farmers markets.

By Labor Day, the farm has gone through its apricot, plum and most of its peach season (Rio Osa Gems are still on the trees), but Bartlett pears and Red and Golden Delicious apples are just hitting their stride.

With her two dogs gamboling around her on the slightly overgrown paths between the rows of trees, Yingst leads a couple of women (they know the routine and have loaded one of the farm’s small wooden wagons with baskets they’ve brought) to the trees with the ripest fruit. Low branches on those trees are tagged with plastic ribbons.

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One of the visitors, Liliana Tortell, who has been coming to this farm for close to a decade, says she “can’t buy the ones in the market,” because she thinks they’re tasteless. As she waited for Yingst to weigh the peaches she’d selected, Tortell said she planned to make a pie with some of the fruit, and to simply cook down the rest with butter and sugar.

Further down Pearblossom Highway, past lonely Joshua trees and handmade signs for honey and jerky and sail-plane rides, down a mile-long, coyote-tracked dirt road, is Brian Ranch Airport, a U-pick farm so vast and horizontal that it looks more like an airstrip than an orchard. In fact, it’s both.

Six hundred fruit trees fill five of Jack Brian and Felice Apodaca’s 40 acres. As you walk through the trees -- Shinko and Kikusi Asian pears, Flavortop nectarines, Braeburn and Red Fuji and Royal Gala apples, Rosi-Red and Bronze Beauty pears -- you can see the hangar where Brian, a former aerospace engineer, keeps his Rans S-12 and Piper Arrow planes. Nearby, a tiny cold-storage hut houses the picked fruit that the couple will sell at the South Pasadena farmers market and take to the Antelope Valley Fair.

Apodaca, who is from Los Angeles, says her British husband always wanted to own an airport. The land they bought in 1978 with that in mind was zoned for agriculture, so they decided to plant fruit trees.

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Tasty destinations

Business IS good lately, Apodaca says, thanks to the ease of “getting the word out” on the Internet. Families come up from the city, and the ranch also gets business from recreational pilots, who fly in for an afternoon of fruit picking.

“They’re always looking for a destination as an excuse,” Apodaca says. “You’ve heard of the $200 hamburger? We’re the $50 peach.” (The farm charges 95 cents a pound for peaches and all its other fruit.)

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Another center of U-pick activity is in San Bernardino County, where the apple ranches of Oak Glen -- an area of rolling foothills east of Yucaipa, cool enough for winter snows and prime apple growing -- are like a bucolic oasis after a string of scrubby outposts. Tiny ski rental shacks and dry-docked boats (Lake Arrowhead is only about 40 miles north) yield to green hills and orchards heavy with Honeycrisps and Empires, Pink Ladys and Arkansas Blacks.

Oak Glen is as much an apple theme park as a collection of farms and ranches. Gift shops, restaurants, conference centers and art galleries line the main drag of Oak Glen Road. Picking apples here has been elevated to performance art.

At Riley’s Apple Farm (many of the businesses up here are run by the Riley family, who originally brought the U-pick idea to Oak Glen), there are blackberries and raspberries for picking in late summer. Then pears and, after Labor Day, the official start of apple season up here, U-pick apples.

After a meandering drive up Oak Glen Road, you park in a dirt-and-grass lot near the orchards. But the Rileys who run this farm do more than hand you a bucket: The gift shop is operated by women in pioneer garb; there are archery and tomahawk- and knife-throwing demonstrations.

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Down the road, Riley’s at Los Rios Rancho (run by Devon and Shelli Riley, a different branch of the extended Riley clan) also starts off its U-pick schedule with raspberries before segueing into apples, then pumpkins, then chestnuts in late fall.

After a morning spent among the orchards, take a bag of freshly picked Galas -- or a 5-pound apple pie from the farm’s bakery -- and explore the trails of the Wildlands Conservancy, which has its headquarters at Los Rios Rancho.

The Conservancy owns the orchards and leases the land to the Rileys at Los Rios; depending on the seasons, the trail you walk might pass through the very orchard where you picked your apples.

Los Rios Rancho grows 28 varieties of apples, including Gravensteins, Rome Beauties, Starkey Delicious and the gorgeous Arkansas Blacks -- stunning crisp, hard-textured apples that look more like orbs carved out of dark mahogany than fruit.

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All the apple varieties are available for picking, though orchards will mature and be ready at different times.

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All in the family

Down THE hill from the Riley farms at the end of a little side road called Raspberry Lane is the smaller Snow-Line Orchard. The Hudson family, which owns and operates the farm, doesn’t offer U-pick apples; instead, there are raspberries (both red and golden) to pick in the field above the farm’s shop. In the shop you can buy cider made on the premises and some of the 34 varieties of apples the Hudsons grow in nearby Cherry Valley. And starting Labor Day, Snow-Line makes cider doughnuts seven days a week.

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“We’ve got people who’ve been coming here for generations; [the farm] is 110 years old,” Linda Hudson says.

Hudson says that visitors come from San Diego, Ventura County and Los Angeles, even from Las Vegas. “People like U-pick because it’s an activity for the family, or it’s a tradition. [The way] I look at it,” says Hudson as she pauses to direct a group of local kids on a scavenger hunt near the raspberry bushes, “it’s work.”

Work, of course, is a relative concept. Picking Gravensteins or Galas from a low-hung branch, pausing amid the long grass and sage to bite into a crisp Braeburn or a Bartlett pear, then filling a basket with fruit that you’ve gathered yourself may not seem like work at all.

Watching the kids run down the fields at Underwood farm last Sunday, calling out to see who could find the biggest eggplant, it seemed a lot more like play.

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amy.scattergood@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Farms that welcome the DIY crowd

Finding U-pick farms has gotten easier than it used to be, thanks to Blake Slemmer, an Atlanta software executive who started the national pick-your-own website, www.pickyourown.org. He relies on visitor feedback to update his site, which provides farm lists for 50 states and six countries. Here are some U-pick farms within reasonable driving distance of Los Angeles that either offer activities for kids, have farm stands or are close to other U-pick farms. Farms offer bags or boxes but it’s helpful to bring your own. For liability reasons, neither ladders nor cherry-pickers are allowed at most farms.

Brian Ranch Airport U-Pick Orchard. At the end of a mile-long dirt road, this farm is also a private airport specializing in ultralight and light sport aircraft. In season now: peaches, pears, Asian pears, nectarines, apples. The farmers sell at the South Pasadena farmers market. Open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and by appointment during the week. $1.50 per pound of fruit picked. 34810 Largo Vista Road, Llano. (661) 261-3216; www.brianranch.com.

Riley’s Apple Farm. This working farm has a 19th century feel, as “we’ve tried to stay true to the historical appearance,” Timothy Riley says. In addition to picking fruit, children and adults can also press cider, make corn-husk dolls and practice tomahawk throwing and archery. In season now: raspberries and blackberries. Apples begin after Labor Day, and pumpkins will be available at the end of September. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; after Labor Day, Tuesday through Sunday. $5 parking fee on the weekends. 12201 S. Oak Glen Road, Oak Glen. (909) 797-4061 or (866) 585-6407; www.rileysapplefarm .com.

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Riley’s Los Rios Rancho. Right now the Gravenstein, Gala and Macintosh orchards are open for U-pick, as are the raspberries and Bartlett pears, but starting Labor Day, this farm also offers hayrides, apple-pressing, a petting zoo and a hay-bale maze. In October, it’ll have U-pick pumpkins, and in November, chestnuts. Open for U-pick 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sunday; beginning Labor Day, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Raspberries are $5 a mounded pint; apples about $6 for a 3-pound bag, $1.25 for larger amounts. There is a $1-per-person orchard entrance fee. 39610 Oak Glen Road, Oak Glen. (909) 797-1005; www.losriosrancho.com.

Snow-Line Orchard. Though you can’t pick apples, there is a U-pick raspberry patch here and a shop that sells many of the 34 varieties of apples the Hudson family grows nearby as well as three types of house-made cider and lovely cider doughnuts (made daily after Labor Day). In season: raspberries (golden and red). Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily beginning Labor Day. Three (1-pint) baskets of raspberries, $12. 39400 Oak Glen Road, Oak Glen. (909) 797-3415; www.snow-line.com.

Tanaka Farms. This 30-acre organic farm operates year-round, giving tours that culminate in fields where you can pick your own seasonal fruit. Strawberry tours are done for the year, but watermelon tours continue through the end of August. Pumpkin tours begin the last week of September. There’s also a farm stand, petting zoo and corn maze (in season). Reservations required for weekday tours. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, until 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. $13 a person per tour; price includes a watermelon or pumpkin. 5380 3/4 University Drive, Irvine. (714) 968-6588; www.tanakafarms.com.

Underwood Family Farms. The Moorpark location is a 160-acre working farm with a petting zoo, tractor rides and a farm stand. It sells at various farmers markets, including in Hollywood. See its website for a list. In October, during pumpkin and squash season, the Moorpark farm hosts a harvest festival. In season now: tomatoes, peppers, black-eyed peas, raspberries, zucchini, cucumbers. The 10-acre Somis farm has a farm stand and is open May to early August for U-pick blueberries (U-pick currently closed). Both locations are open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Prices are by pound and vary by item. $3 per person entry fee during the week; $5 on weekends. 3370 Sunset Valley Road, Moorpark. (805) 529-3690; 5696 Los Angeles Ave., Somis. (805) 386-4660. www.underwoodfamilyfarms.com.

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Yingst Ranch. This 18-acre farm is open only as long as the peaches are in season, usually until early October. They don’t have rides or gift shops, but there’s a gorgeous orchard filled with heirloom fruit varieties, wild bees and plenty of tranquillity. In addition to U-pick, they also sell picked fruit and family and go to four farmers markets: Hollywood, Pasadena, Riverside and Victorville. In season now: peaches, pears, apples. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Fruit is 95 cents a pound for U-pick, $1.20 per pound for picked fruit. 35349 80th St., Littlerock. (661) 944-2425.

-- Amy Scattergood

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Apple galette

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Total time:

1 hour, 10 minutes, plus 1 hour chilling time for the dough

Servings:

10

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Note: Use sweet, firm apples such as Galas or Braeburns. You can also make this galette with pears, peaches or a combination of fruit; if using different fruit, substitute melted butter or a different nut oil, such as almond oil, for the walnut oil. If you don’t have walnut oil, substitute an equal amount of melted butter. This recipe requires the use of a pizza stone. An inverted baking sheet can be substituted.

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional flour for rolling out

1/2 teaspoon, plus 1/8 teaspoon, fine sea salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

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3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

1 egg yolk

1 1/4 pound apples (4 large or 6 medium)

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Juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons walnut oil

1/4 cup honey, if desired

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1 cup heavy whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks

1. Place the flour, one-half teaspoon salt and cinnamon in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter to the flour mixture, pulsing until the butter pieces are reduced to the size of small peas.

2. Combine the vinegar and egg yolk in a measuring cup and add enough ice water to bring the volume up to one-half cup. Add the liquid in a steady stream to the food processor, while pulsing, just until the flour looks crumbly and evenly moist.

3. Turn the dough out onto a counter spread with plastic wrap, draw the dough together, pressing as you go, and form into a disk. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

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4. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 400 degrees and place a pizza stone on the middle rack. Core the apples and cut them lengthwise in 1/8 -inch slices; place them in a medium bowl and toss with the lemon juice. Set aside.

5. Roll out the dough into a 14-inch circle on a slightly larger piece of parchment paper (you may need 2 overlapping sheets), lightly dusting the parchment and dough with flour as needed. Place the dough and the parchment on a baking tray, wrap in plastic and freeze for 30 minutes.

6. Take out the frozen dough and arrange the apple slices on top in concentric circles, starting around the outer edge and working inward, slightly overlapping the slices as you go. You should have 3 rows of slices, depending on the size of the apples.

7. Sprinkle the remaining salt evenly over the apples. Sprinkle the sugar over the apples and any visible dough. Drizzle the walnut oil evenly over the top.

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8. Slide the galette (still on the parchment paper) onto the pizza stone. Bake for about 45 minutes, rotating the galette two or three times so that it browns evenly , until the crust is golden brown and the apples are caramelized. While the galette is baking, heat the honey in a small saucepan over low heat until warm and almost liquid.

9. Remove the galette from the oven and brush with the warm honey, if desired. Allow to cool slightly. Cut into wedges and serve with unsweetened whipped cream.

Each of 10 servings: 402 calories; 4 grams protein; 35 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 28 grams fat; 16 grams saturated fat; 95 mg. cholesterol; 157 mg. sodium.

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Video online

Go to latimes.com/food for a U-pick stroll through the fields at Underwood Family Farms.


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