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Life is a bucket of cherries

Outdoors: ‘You pick’ cherry season is in full swing in the Leona Valley

Posted: June 12, 2010 10:52 p.m.
Updated: June 13, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Kenna Joseph helps her son, Anthony Joseph, 2, put cherries in a bucket at the Villa Del Sol “you pick” cherry orchard in Leona Valley.

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It is an eagerly awaited rite of summer when the cherries begin to ripen in the Leona Valley.

At Villa Del Sol, the largest "you pick" cherry orchard in Southern California, customers can enjoy selecting their own sweet little edible jewels for just $3 a pound.

Approximately a half hour from the Santa Clarita Valley, the 26-acre ranch began its season on June 5 and has welcomed as many as 10,000 customers a day since in search of the perfect cherry, said co-owner Gary Shaffer. Shaffer runs the business with wife Maxi Case.

"Right now the best-tasting cherry is Brooks, next week it will be the Bing, and two weeks from now, it'll be the Rainier. Once the Rainiers are ripe, we won't be able to sell anything else," Shaffer said.

The Leona Valley cherry season usually runs between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Customers, Shaffer noted, are attracted to Villa Del Sol for the experience of picking their own fruit, as well as the health benefits of cherries grown without chemicals, which can be eaten straight from the tree.

"We do have a lot of people that come from the city whose kids have seen nothing but pavement. They don't know what a farm is like, that fruit doesn't just grow in a plastic box," he said. "Most of our guests here also want to know about pesticides. We don't spray here, but at the grocery store, you just don't know."

Shaffer, a former general contractor who was born and raised in Palmdale, opened Villa del Sol nine years ago as a change to his hectic lifestyle and to enjoy a semi-retirement. The family-run operation gets help from Shaffer's son-in-law, niece, mother-in-law and the occasional neighbor, but it's still been a little more difficult than he expected.

"It's an average of 50 hours a week all year long. Now it's seven days a week, every week. A few weeks ago, I was up at 2 a.m., trying to beat the frost," Shaffer said. "After the season is done, we can take a breath."

Right now, though, business is ramping up. Up to 350 cars can park in one of three lots, which are lined with portable restrooms.

Workers pass out two and a half gallon red buckets, or smaller yellow quart-size containers for children, to arriving guests. The red buckets, when filled to the brim, can hold up to 12 pounds of fruit.

Villa Del Sol's 350 trees are cordoned off with yellow tape and the staff directs visitors to trees with the ripest fruit.
Visitors are advised to pick just the fruit itself and leave the stems behind whenever possible, so the tree can flower and bloom the next season.

It's a Zen-like experience, wandering through a labyrinth of trees with branches so full they droop to the ground. Guests can look overhead through a sheaf of sunlight, to see and pluck the perfect fruit, all in the near silence of a still desert afternoon. The property can present a bit of a maze, but visitors who venture too far off the trail don't have to worry.

"We have workers in the field who can direct people back to the entrance and help them carry buckets too," Shaffer said.

Once finished contents of the buckets are dumped onto scales for weighing, then packaged in brown paper bags.

"Right now, cherries are $4.99 a pound in stores. We set our price at $3 a pound five years ago and have kept it there. It's a price that allows us to make a living and seemed fair for both the customer and us," Shaffer said.

While cherries are prevalent in pies and sauces, Shaffer noted those were usually sour cherries, which are not produced at Villa Del Sol. "All our cherries are about the same, they're a sweet eating cherry with a somewhat mild taste," he said.

Cherries are rich in vital nutrients such as beta carotene, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, iron, fiber and folate and have been shown to have among the highest levels of disease-fighting antioxidants compared to other fruits. The fruit may even promote heart health.

A recent study from the University of Michigan found a cherry-enriched diet lowered total weight, body fat, inflammation and cholesterol, which are all risk factors associated with heart disease.

Most of all, cherries, especially sun-ripe from the tree, just taste great, as Villa Del Sol customer Chelsea Himan, of Palmdale, said.

"They're fresh, they're sweet, they're just really good. We'll probably eat them all on the way home," Himan said.
Himan and her boyfriend, Andrew Hill, of Palmdale, visited Villa Del Sol to celebrate their nine month anniversary.

"I've never been cherry picking before, and it's something we always wanted to do. I figured, it's here, let's try it out," Hill said.

For Luwin Kwan, of Arcadia, cherry picking was an opportunity to get his children Addison, 4, and Bailey, 2, outdoors and spend some quality family time together.

"This is our first time here. It's a lot of fun for them," he said, motioning to the Kwan children, who were pointing to and plucking cherries with big smiles and giggles, supervised by their grandmother, who was visiting from Washington.

Kwan had his own motive for visiting Villa Del Sol, too.

"I love cherries. They're one of my favorite fruits, just straight off the tree," Kwan said with a smile.

Villa del Sol, 6989 Elizabeth Lake Road, Leon Valley, is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit or call (661) 270-1356. Wheelchair accessible in spots, e-mail info@upickcherries.com in advance or ask staff at gate for directions and parking.

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