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AT THE MARKET

Tree-Ripened Fruit, Berries Now in Season : Poor weather made the harvest sparse for apricots, cherries this year, but plums are abundant.

June 03, 1993|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To no one's surprise--but to many a fruit lover's delight--summer sweets have returned to Ventura County. And not a moment too soon for sweet-toothed customers, who withstood the seasonal lull between winter and summertime harvests.

Area farmers' markets and produce outlets are once again bustling with shoppers buying up bags of bramble berries, apricots, peaches, plums and the like--most of which only are available for a few short months, or even weeks.

"People go nuts," said Karen Wetzel, manager of the three Ventura County Certified Farmers' Markets. "They have so many more choices now. Plus, it's their first chance of the year to enjoy these types of fruits."

The real treat, customers say, is being able to purchase tree- or vine-ripened products.

"The taste just does not compare," said Gene Cherry, as he filled a bag of red plums recently at the Wednesday farmer's market in Ventura. "The fruit sold in grocery stores during the winter is mostly imported--it's picked before it ripens and never is as sweet."

Much of the stone fruit currently available at area markets is coming from the San Joaquin Valley. Ventura County's peach and plum harvests, for the most part, will ripen later in the summer. And don't expect too many local apricots. Rainy weather all but decimated this season's crop.

Plums are abundant, though. Keep an eye out for such varieties as the "Red Beaut," "Santa Rosa" and "Black Amber." You'll find an assortment of plums with new varieties arriving as the season progresses.

"The people are asking like crazy for the Santa Rosa," said 22-year-old Ryan Fife, who, along with family members, sells several varieties of plums at the Ventura (Wednesday and Saturday), Oxnard and Thousand Oaks markets.

Blackberries are a summertime favorite for many people. There are plenty of locally grown berries to be had now in Ventura County, but again, you'd better get them fast.

"The berries are produced only once a year, so that's it as soon as they're gone," said Oxnard berry grower Robbie Denny. "I'll have berries for about three more weeks." You can procure Denny's olalliberries and other bramble berry varieties at all area farmers' markets.

Now back to apricots. Enthusiasts might be a bit chagrined to learn this year's crop was nothing short of terrible.

Bill O'Leary, proprietor of O'Leary Apricot Ranch in Santa Paula, said inclement weather has prevented him from selling any fruit at his roadside stand this summer.

"It rained during the bloom period this year and we don't have any fruit to sell," he lamented. Not only is it damaging to the fragile blossoms, rain also hampers pollination, O'Leary said.

Fife Farms is selling apricots, but they, too, were victims of the foul weather. Their supplies will dry up by about mid month.

Poor weather has also hurt supplies of another sugary-sweet favorite--the cherry.

Oxnard grower Luis Velazquez is offering cherries at three area markets, but his supplies will run out in the next few days, he said.

Velazquez's cherries are raised in Northern California and purchased from other growers. "A lot of the farmers are finished picking, but also the crop was real light this year," he said.

If you hurry to the Oxnard (Thursday) or Ventura (Wednesday and Saturday) farmers' markets, you can still make it in time before he runs out.

As for peaches, Dorothy Holmes has an abundant offering of the Tejon variety she raises near Los Padres National Forest.

"You'll need to bend over when you bite into these," Holmes said. "They're real juicy."

Holmes sells a number of peach varieties--including the Ventura, Bonita Elberta and Rio Oso Gem--throughout the summer at her roadside stand, located at 16350 Maricopa Highway near Ojai. Call her at 646-1231.

Cynthia Korman, manager of the Ojai farmers' market, said the season's first watermelons have recently been harvested and are now available.

"That stuff is a really big draw," she said of the melons' popularity. "The melons and the other fruits increase the farmers' business a lot."

Fruits and melons aside, another sweet summer favorite has just made its way to market--corn, particularly white corn.

"It's very sweet this year," said Oxnard farmers' market manager Ruth Bernstein. "It tastes great, even raw."

"People have been asking about white corn for two months," said Dan Urango of Hanson's Ranch in Camarillo. Urango sells the ranch's corn at the Camarillo and Oxnard markets. The corn is also available at the Hanson Ranch roadside stand at Los Posas Avenue and the Ventura Freeway, near Camarillo Airport.

"The white corn is too sweet for me," Urango said. "It's like eating boiled candy."

*

Here's a rundown of other popular sites to buy summertime fruit:

* Tierra Rejada Ranch, 3370 Moorpark Road, Moorpark. The ranch opened recently with you-pick-'em blackberries. Call 529-3690.

* The Organic Berry Farm, 5208 Casitas Pass Road (California 150), between Ventura and Ojai. Blackberries and a variety of plums.

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