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California and the West

Chill on Cherries

Cool Spring Has Delayed Local Festival and Harvest in Town of Pick-Your-Own Orchards

June 22, 1998|DIANA MARCUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CHERRY VALLEY, Calif. — This is one of the few places in Southern California where at least 80 nights each year chill to a true freeze, spring days are balmy and folks are of a mind to let strangers frolic in their back yards.

All three are necessary criteria for the U-pick cherry orchards that give this tiny hamlet its name and each spring draw crowds of families from Los Angeles and Orange counties and elsewhere.

Usually, the cherries are ripe by the first week of June, something that growers say has held true for 40 of the past 50 years.

Not this season. Fog and rain during the usually balmy month of May slowed things down. The annual cherry festival the first weekend in June came and went with nary a local cherry. The target date for the orchards to open is now June 27, after being pushed back three times.

Most of the cherries are still yellow and gold instead of ripe-for-the-picking cherry red, but visitors are already arriving at this community near Beaumont. Never mind that Stella Parks, an orchard owner and president of the Cherry Grower's Assn., has taken to answering her phone with "The cherries are not ripe just yet," dispensing with "Hello" altogether.

"The same people just keep calling and calling," Parks said. "I guess they think the cherries are going to change their minds about when they're fixing to be ready. It is hard waiting."

A recent morning found five members of the Fukue family happily picking fruit at an orchard owned by Sam Vaughan, a longtime grower who plants 25 different kinds of cherry trees, including some of the softer, earlier-ripening varieties.

He was the only grower open for business last Tuesday. "I'm not ripe, but I can't turn these people away that came so far. I let them pick what ripe ones they can find," he said.

Vaughan handed the Fukues and several other families coffee-can buckets with rope handles, calling out a warning that eating green cherries could "spell a bellyache."

Three-year-old Tiffany Fukue, tasted the cherries without ever putting one in her bucket. She used both hands to cram the fruit into her mouth, then wiped her juice-stained hands on a pink T-shirt that was presumably white at the beginning of the day.

"She ate 20 that I counted," said her mother, Momoko Fukue.

The Fukues, owners of a Japanese restaurant in Tustin, began coming to Cherry Valley the year their 7-year-old son Julian was born.

"My mother came from Tokyo and we went cherry-picking. Now, every year she comes and we spend a day picking cherries together," said Momoko Fukue.

Julian, by far the most efficient cherry-picker in the group, stayed on the top rungs of the ladders delivering cherries into a bucket without stopping to snack. Nearby, his parents and grandmother also gathered the fruit.

Cherry Valley orchard owners said more than half of their business is multi-generational Asian families such as the Fukues.

Hirokazu Kosaka, 50, a Buddhist priest and artist in residence at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles, has trekked to the cherry orchards for the past 20 years.

"Every year about this time I feel like it's time to pick cherries. I think it's something particular to Asian nature to want to mark seasonal changes; it signifies being in harmony with nature," Kosaka said.

"So every year we get out of the city and get dusty and sweaty picking cherries and then picnic. The children climb trees and sack out in the back seat on the way home. Every year, we meet the same Japanese, Korean and Cambodian families who also come to pick the cherries," he said.

"So the cherry orchards have become community ritual grounds. When you pick a cherry from a tree, it's like the Almighty presenting you with a gift."

Cherry blossom festivals are a rite of springtime in Japan, but many of the trees there are ornamental.

"Picking cherries is a Japanese tradition," said Kayo Machiki, Tiffany's and Julian's grandmother. "But it is Californian Japanese."

By next weekend, locals expect that cars will be bumper-to-bumper along this community's tree-lined streets as the season gets underway for real in Cherry Valley, a 45-minute drive west of Palm Springs.

Marilyn Legerat, who owns a bright pink bakery where people jockey for seats at outdoor picnic tables, will try to break her record of selling 400 cherry pies in a single day. Each of her pies is made with three pounds of local cherries.

Vaughan is getting antsy too. He can't wait to pick his prized Bing and deacon and Utah giant cherries. He has been picking in Cherry Valley since he was 4 and can't recall a year he had to wait so long.

"It's going to be quite a season," said Vaughan, 61. "The cherries are thicker than fleas on a dog and everyone's so anxious, they can taste the cherries without ever putting one in their mouth."

For Parks, an Oklahoma native who has been growing cherries here for 26 years, one of the highlights is seeing the same people year after year.

She recalled one family that has come every season as long as she can remember, bringing five generations to pick cherries and picnic on the grass.

"I watched their children's children grow up. Now it's like a visit from old friends," she said.

"And there's nothing like the 'ooh' and 'ahs' when one of them carries out a basket of glossy cherries picked clean with the stem on each one. We share the opinion that there's nothing prettier in the whole world."

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