Produce from U-Pick sites adds a touch of sweetness to each bite

Five-year-old Adelle Robison gives the peaches at Valley View Orchard the highest compliment she can think of.

"They taste like candy," says the little girl.

Together with her parents and younger brother, Adelle has just picked seven pounds of the fuzzy fruit at this popular U-pick place in Ashland. Stopping after about 25 minutes — when the kids started getting hot — kept the experience fun for everyone, notes Anne Robison, Adelle's mom.

With the picking over, the eating has begun — even before the Robisons have piled into their minivan to leave. Adelle envisions a feast when she gets home.

"I want to make cupcakes — with peach slices on top, and sprinkles," she says.

Visitors get to Valley View by driving down a tree-shaded lane. It's a change from pulling into a supermarket parking lot. And the rewards at the end of the drive are nice, too: fresh air, a feeling of connection with the foods you will eat — and something more.

"Because we're organic, it's a healthier alternative to supermarket produce," explains Kathy O' Leary. She and her husband, Tim, took over the 50 acres in 2000. They open early in the summer for U-pick cherries. Peaches and some apples are available now. Nectarines, pears and fall apples ripen last.

"Volume is low this year, but all the fruit looks great," O'Leary reports.

One bit of bad news for U-pickers: freezing conditions early in the year wiped out the notoriously fragile apricot crop.

"It was a rough spring," says O'Leary.

According to O'Leary, people on her e-mail list arrive in droves as soon as she announces that a crop is ripe. Some serious pickers bring their own crews to harvest 100 or 200 pounds of apples and pears. But most customers are families like the Robisons, satisfied to fill a pail, she says.

Some of the trees designated this year for U-pick have stood since the 1960s, says O'Leary, who adds that U-pick is a small portion of their overall business, "maybe 10 or 15 percent."

"But it's such a tradition at Valley View," she notes. "It's something we want to do."

"I couldn't believe how much people appreciated us," says Donna Arthur, recalling the reaction to the U-pick business that she and her husband, Morris, started in 1998.

Ten years later, the owners of Alta Vista Orchard in Medford are still feeling the love.

"People thank us all the time for doing this," Arthur says. "It's been nothing but fun."

The Arthurs, members of the Oregon Blueberry Growers Association, planted a quarter-acre of blueberries in 1995, thinking they would pick the fruit themselves and sell it to restaurants and supermarkets. Plans changed when they realized that they couldn't keep up with the bumper crop.

They started charging folks a couple bucks to pick a pound of the juicy tidbits, and have never regretted their decision.

"We've enjoyed every minute," says Arthur. "We get lots of families. Everything is going great this year."

In an age of fences and "No Trespassing" signs, U-pick owners are a rare breed: They allow strangers onto their property and let them poke around in the bushes.

Do they need the money that badly? Not really.

"It's an incidental part of my business, relatively small," says Ed Vaughn, referring to the portion of his 22-acre Vaughn Farm and Orchard in Central Point that he reserves for U-pick. He grows blackberries and pears, which are usually ripe by the middle of August.

Vaughn invites U-pickers onto his land for a simple reason: "Just to give people the opportunity," he says.

He doesn't advertise, which is typical of most U-pick farms. A sign on the side of the road is all the invitation people need to show up.

These businesses are usually not open every day, and hours of operation are sometimes erratic. So it's always a good idea to call ahead before loading the family in the car for a U-pick outing.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at