COVID-19 can’t stop cherry picking season in Brentwood

The coronavirus pandemic might have canceled out many springtime pleasures, but there’s no stopping the cherry blooms — or the eager U-Pick fruit lovers who come to Brentwood to enjoy the bountiful harvest each year.

Though much of the world has taken a pause, the time is still ripe for fresh fruit picking, and U-Pick farms, like farmers markets and grocers, are deemed “essential businesses,’’ according to the Contra Costa County Health Department. As such, they can operate as long as they abide by all county health rules, such as requiring masks for everyone over 12 and maintaining social distancing.

“There’s a small handful (of farmers) that are trying to go the commercial route so they don’t have to deal with any sort of crowd that is coming in and any kind of exposure,” said Mitch Bloomfield, co-owner of Bloomfield Cherries. “But for the most part, everyone I know is opening up and making sure (health) precautions and guidelines for the U-Pick are followed.”

That said, this year might look a little different. A few of the more than 30 U-Pick orchards are requiring reservations or limiting visitors. Many insist on hand sanitizing before and after entering and, picnicking is prohibited everywhere. Some also are eliminating ladders, though Bloomfield is not.

At Bloomfield Cherries, which has two Brentwood locations, visitors are encouraged to wear gloves along with masks but will be given bag liners if they bring their own buckets. In the past, the orchard supplied buckets, but not this year because it would be too hard to keep them sanitized, the farmer said.

“If you touch it, please take it with you,” he said of the cherries.

With a warmer- and drier-than-normal winter, cherry trees in far East Contra Costa County this season began bearing fruit a bit earlier than the Memorial Day weekend that traditionally marks the big push of U-Pick season when thousands of visitors usually descend on the region.

Although this season has yielded a lighter crop, Bloomfield said said the quality is much better.

“Cherries are very dependent on the weather — they need a really cold winter to have a chill — they like to be dormant … but the quality has been great,” said Bloomfield, who opened on May 6. “They’re nice and dark, there’s no splitting, and there aren’t a lot of imperfections. A lighter crop has less problems — like doubles, spurs and cracking.”

Different varieties of the cherries, though, have different ripening times, he said, noting Corals, Royal Tioga and Brooks are in season now while Lapins and Sweethearts will be available by Memorial Day weekend.

One farm that had planned to open to U-Pick customers for the first time this year was Dwelley Farms, which planted a cherry orchard about five years ago. Instead, it set up a pop-up tent off Walnut Boulevard last week for drive-thru pickups of its hand-picked organic Royal Tiogas and Royal Hazel varieties.

“We decided it would be better for our employees,” fruit stand manager Patrick Johnston said. “They (customers) can make quick transactions and be on their way with the drive-thru.”

Even so, he said the U-Pick farms “are doing a really good job of making sure their customers are having a safe experience.”

“It’s definitely a different approach to U-Pick — there are no coolers, backpacks — people are not camping in the orchards,” he said. “It’s hopefully a nice chance for people to get outside and get some (farm) products.”

Alli Cecchini of The Urban Edge Farm meanwhile is taking a slightly different approach. For the first time, the farm’s fruit and vegetable stand is taking online orders and offering drive-thru pickups.

“We wanted to make it contactless for people,” she said, noting many of her customers are older or fall in the vulnerable category for COVID-19.

At first, she offered customers menus for the farm’s organic fresh fruits, including Coral Champagne cherries and fresh vegetables, but she found that too time-consuming, so she turned to online ordering.

“We went from a farm store to an Amazon-fulfillment store,” she said of her farm stand on Walnut Boulevard.

Cecchini said she plans to offer some limited U-Pick for stone fruit — they don’t have many cherries — sometime in the future.

And while this spring’s crop is not a bumper one and fewer visitors will likely head to the orchards, Bloomfield still sees the short cherry season as a good one marked by flavorful fresh fruit.

“We initially thought it was going to be a down season — which it more than likely is — but it has been steadily busy,” Bloomfield said. “We expected about half the people — and I totally understand why — but the feedback has been really good so far. People want to come pick cherries and enjoy themselves out in the orchard.”

For information on which orchards are open, go to Harvest Time at https://harvestforyou.com/pressmedia/cherr-u-pick-is-open-with-new-guidelines/

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Author: Judith Prieve

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