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Go to the source

For the freshest produce -- plus a fun break from the urban jungle -- grab a basket and let your harvest begin.

August 27, 2008|Amy Scattergood | 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 30, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
U-pick farms: A Wednesday Food section article about U-pick farms stated that Moorpark, the home of Underwood Family Farms, is northeast of Encino. Moorpark is northwest of Encino.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 03, 2008 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
U-pick farms: An Aug. 27 article about U-pick farms stated that Moorpark, home of Underwood Family Farms, is northeast of Encino. Moorpark is northwest of Encino.

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."

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."

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.

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.

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