U-PICK TO NO-PICK

Drought and bee­tles dev­as­tate Leona Val­ley cherry crop

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Louis Sa­h­a­gun

LEONA VAL­LEY, Calif.— Dave Shields started the en­gine of his trac­tor on a re­cent weekday and be­gan top­pling the hun­dreds of drought-stricken cherry trees he and his wife planted 15 years ago in this north Los An­ge­les County foothills com­mu­nity.

A win­ter heat wave, late frosts and ma­raud­ing ravens and bark bee­tles dev­as­tated much of this year’s cherry crop; then came monthly ir­ri­ga­tion bills of up to $900. Shields’ 2 1⁄2- acre C&D Cher­ries had be­come a fi­nan­cial bur­den the fam­ily could no longer af­ford.

The or­chard, about 10 miles west of Palm­dale, is among 20 cherry ranch oper­a­tions that, like C & D Cher­ries, usu­ally open their gates for a few week­ends in early June to hordes of “U-pick ‘Em” cus­tomers.

“We hear talk about a lot of rain head­ing our way this win­ter,” said Shields, pres­i­dent of the Leona Val­ley Cherry Grow­ers Assn. “But we can’t af­ford to wait for rain. We’re go­ing out of busi­ness and selling the prop­erty.”

The 71-year-old re­tired Los An­ge­les City Fire Depart­ment heavy equip­ment op­er­a­tor said he can get a higher price if the land has no trees.

Long­time grow­ers say this year’s cherry crop was the worst ever in the val­ley’s 35 square miles of ram­bling, coun­try-style homes, or­chards and pas­ture­lands best known for its an­nual Leona Val­ley Cherry Pa­rade and Fes­ti­val in early June.

The event pays trib­ute to the “pick your own” cher­ries that have be­come the fo­cus of pop­u­lar fam­ily out­ings for visi­tors from Los An­ge­les, Kern, Or­ange and Ven­tura coun­ties.

This year, how­ever, not one ripe cherry dan­gled from a tree in the val­ley when the pa­rade kicked off June 6. Pies for the pie-eat­ing con­test were baked with cher­ries from su­per­mar­kets in Palm­dale, said David Clay­ton, a spokesman for the Leona Val­ley Im­prove­ment Assn.

“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Clay­ton, who moved here in 1979. “Only five of our or­chards even opened this year.”

David Bracken, a deputy com­mis­sioner for the Los An­ge­les

County Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, was not sur­prised.

“Cher­ries are a very finicky, vul­ner­a­ble and del­i­cate crop that has marginally pros­pered in cer­tain pock­ets of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia,” he said. But with higher tem­per­a­tures and in­creas­ing com­pe­ti­tion for avail­able wa­ter re­sources, the fu­ture of cher­ries in these ar­eas is wan­ing, he said.

Cold weather, oc­ca­sional frost and snow — at the right time of year — were key to Leona Val­ley’s rep­u­ta­tion as a cherry par­adise, ac­cord­ing to Don Ho­bart, 84, who helped launch the public pick­ing fes­tiv­i­ties here with 265 fruit trees he planted in 1959.

By the 1980s, more than 8,000 cherry trees thrived in about 30 cherry or­chards, pro­vid­ing ranch­ers with gen­er­ous tax de­duc­tions for fer­til­izer, ranch ma­chin­ery, com­put­ers, soft­ware, tele­phones and advertising. The grow­ers es­tab­lished a hot­line to tell peo­ple when the or­chards are open and how to reach them.

To­day, six grow­ers re- main in the as­so­ci­a­tion, and the hot­line’s recorded mes­sage is dis­ap­point­ing: “As of June 3, 2015, un­for­tu­nately due to the low crop this year, all or­chards in the as­so­ci­a­tion are sold out.”

“Mother Na­ture is be­ing pretty tough on us,” Ho­bart said. “I feel bad about that.”

Most Leona Val­ley grow­ers are re­tired, like Shields, or have another job to pay the bills, and run cherry or­chards as small side busi­nesses.

A mile away from C& D, Loren Wor­thing­ton, 36, pre­sides over an or­chard called The Cherry House, where clear sap ooz­ing from tree limbs sig­naled an in­fes­ta­tion of wood-bor­ing bee­tles. “When drought sets in and wa­ter gets low, you get bark bee­tles,” he said.

At nearby Windy Ridge Cher­ries, one of the few ro­bust crops in the val­ley this year was de­voured by ravens and star­lings be­fore it could be sold, grow­ers said.

C& D, which de­clared a crop loss of 50%, found it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to sus­tain its thirsty trees with­out vi­o­lat­ing the for-profit Cali- for­nia Wa­ter Ser­vice Co.’s or­der that cus­tomers cut back by 36% from their us­age in 2013 or face steep penal­ties.

In the hot sum­mer months, its 200 cherry trees re­quire 1,800 gal­lons a day, an ex­pense this year’s har- vest could not cover.

On June 1, Shields and his wife, Cindy, made their way across the or­chard and said good­bye to the trees they had nur­tured with fer­til­izer, prun­ing, weed­ing and ir­ri­ga­tion. “Then I turned off their wa­ter,” Shields said.

“Rais­ing cher­ries was a dream we chased here for a while,” he said, throt­tling up the trac­tor to knock down another cherry tree. “Now, we’re mov­ing on.”

Pho­tog raphs by Bob Cham­ber­lin Los An­ge­les Times

DAVE SHIELDS is bull­doz­ing his cherry trees. “We can’t af­ford to wait for rain. We’re go­ing out of busi­ness,” he says.

DRIED-OUT CHER­RIES hang at Dave Shields’ or­chard. A lo­cal civic ac­tivist said, “I’ve never seen it this bad.”

Pho­tog raphs by Bob Cham­ber­lin Los An­ge­les Times

DAVE AND CINDY SHIELDS walk through the cherry or­chard they planted 15 years ago. This year, not one ripe cherry dan­gled from a tree in the Leona Val­ley when the an­nual Leona Val­ley Cherry Pa­rade and Fes­ti­val kicked off in early June.

DAVE SHIELDS uses his trac­tor to re­move his cherry trees. He says he can make more money on the sale of his prop­erty if the trees have been re­moved.

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