Originally published June 5, 2014 at The Los Angeles Beat
We are long blessed in Southern California to be considered a land of plenty and abundance. Sweetly enticing fresh fruit and produce grown under our baby blue skies has long been a draw to the area surrounding Los Angeles. Sadly, orange orchards that once stretched far and wide over our region have mostly been replaced with strip malls and housing complexes. Luckily backyard fruit trees are still common, but the experience of walking into an orchard, inhaling the musky scent of farm earth and picking a bucket full of fresh fruit occurs less and less. The good news is that the experience CAN be found and usually within an hour or two drive. Following the seasons is key, because they are sometimes brief and the window for picking can pass quickly by. Right now, the months of June and July are literally ripe for mouthwatering cherries picked straight from the tree, and only about an hour’s drive east from L.A. in Leona Valley.
Leona Valley is a small community located 10 miles west of Palmdale, nestled between scrubby mountains at an elevation of 3,500 feet. Originally filled with cattle ranches, it has transitioned over the years to become the home to 15 cherry orchards. Quaint and picturesque, this area gets snow in the winter, almost a necessity for cherry trees which require 700 hours a year of below freezing temperatures to bear fruit. Here there are an abundance of orchards to choose from. From small Mom & Pop size farms where you can chat with the owners, to the Villa del Sol orchard that boasts 3,600 cherry trees, there is an orchard to fit everyone’s personality. Regulars return year after year to the farm of their choosing.
Based on a few friends who return yearly I chose Copeland’s Cherry Ranch, the only certified organic orchard of the bunch. Most of the others claim to be pesticide free and state that they do not spray poison onto the fruit, so the distinction may not be that major. My attitude was mainly that I was doing this for the experience and that coming away with a sweet and luscious bag of cherries that I picked myself was merely a bonus. Copeland’s was opened 15 years ago by the husband and wife team David and Chari Copeland. I got to meet and chat with friendly and informative Chari, who assured me that her first name and business of choice were merely a coincidence.
Chari instructed us on the art of cherry picking: grab a bucket, look for the tags labeling the different types of cherry varieties, pick the fruit while leaving the stem on the tree as not to destroy the branch and most importantly taste to your heart’s delight. Cherries will be weighed by the pound ($4.50 per pound this year) and paid for at the end. Oh, and no matter how tempted you might be, no climbing in the trees… Although I am not always a good girl, I respected Chari’s no climbing rule and had a most amazing time. I came away with a big bag of sweet and tart deliciousness to be eaten plain, used in a pie and added to the mix of my homemade sangria.
Cherry season is short, so make sure you catch it while it is still here. Before you go make sure to call the 24- hour hotline for the Leona Valley Cherry Grower’s Association to find out which orchards are doing picking.
Leona Valley Cherry Grower’s Association hotline: (661) 261-1116.
Copeland’s Cherry Ranch: 9611 Leona Ave., Leona Valley, CA 93551. (661) 270-1900.