Farther afield for apples

Ol’ Granny Gravenstein, still leafy but listing badly and losing limbs as if suffering from some form of arboristic osteoporosis, is 115 years old and, clearly, has seen better decades.

But, yeah, each autumn this stately dowager, one of a half dozen of the surviving original apple trees that helped put this San Diego County mountain town on the tourism map, somehow manages to cheat death and produce plump, tart specimens a brilliant greenish-red hue. This year: two boxes, about 80 pounds.

“Not bad at all,” said Les Turner, the gentleman farmer from Peacefield Orchards who is Granny’s caretaker, noting that the old girl has a gaping hole in her trunk and has a few hidden bolts and wires to keep her propped up, “especially since most trees are only (viable) until about (age) 30 or 40.”

Like its signature tree, scene of weddings and endless picture-taking, Julian has endured over the years as arguably California’s most prominent and popular site for fall apple picking. Our own Apple Hill outside of Placerville notwithstanding, Julian has the history, the tradition and the pies — tins and tins of apple pies — that draws thousands of visitors each weekend from late September well into October.

What began as a pie-in-the-sky idea in the late 1800s by desperate miners after the gold rush went bust soon turned into a thriving business pursuit that, by 1907, received national recognition with a Wilder Medal, sort of the Oscars for pomological types. In the decades since, Julian’s notoriety branched out into a mecca of the U-Pick pastime, boasting as many as 40 boutique orchards in its heyday a few decades ago and, today, still offering about 10 farms for picking.

You may not think of Southern California as a proper milieu for this chilly rite of fall. But look to them thar hills, at about 4,000 feet elevation, and you’ll find other pockets of U-Pick orchards thriving in the hamlet of Oak Glen, in San Bernardino County, and Tehachapi, in Kern County.

You may also think: Why burn so much fossil fuel to head south when the wonderful and plentiful Apple Hill is just an hour away from Sacramento?

Well, how about for the sake of variety and new experiences, just as Napa Valley wine lovers feel the urge to head to Paso Robles and points south occasionally. And, besides, as U-Pick aficionado Donna Reid of Aliso Viejo (Orange County) boldly stated after bagging 5 pounds of Empire apples for $10 at Volcan Valley Orchard, Julian’s offerings just seem to taste better than those of competitors.

So, how do ya like them apples?

“I’ve never found better apples anywhere,” she said. “When I go home and take these into work to share, I tease people with them. Tell them they’ve got to go to Julian.”

Many, many do. On a typical fall weekend, a steady conga line of cars line Highway 79 coming from San Diego to the south or Riverside and Orange County to the north.

“When we open,” said Conrad Young, owner of the 30-acre Calico Ranch, the largest orchard by far in Julian, “it’s so crowded it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant.”

“These people, they become like ants,” said Richard Rivera, manager of Volcan Valley Orchard. “They come and spread out and strip the limbs like ants.”

And Arnold Starr, of Apple Starr Orchard, could barely get a sentence out without his cellphone ringing with queries. “I must’ve had 35 calls,” he said. “People are clamoring.”

Indeed, this tourist town of 2,000 profits off the U-Pickers. Apple culture permeates the cute Old West-themed Main Street, featuring more apple logos (note: lower-case “a”) than at Apple headquarters in Cupertino. There are apple pie shops (four on one block), hard ciders and ales and apple-carved knickknacks too numerous to document. The fashionable Orchard Hill Country Inn names its cottages after apple varieties, naturally, and a popular bumper sticker on local cars is not “I (heart) Julian” but “I (apple) Julian.”

The real money, farmers insist, is not in U-Pick orchards; it’s in the tourist dollars spent on pies and in restaurants and boutiques. Farmers traditionally are known to “talk poor,” but in this case they do not seem to be exaggerating. At $10 a bag, multiplied by thousands per season, they make a modest profit. But they say, in recent years, weather (too hot, not enough rain) has hampered yield, prompting many owners to sell their land for more second homes for San Diegans.

“All around us are abandoned orchards,” said Young, 71, strolling the rows of trees heavy with fruit. “Real estate values are such they can get more money. But most of us, we don’t do it to make money. I just love it. I don’t play golf, so ...”

Most are what you’d call gentleman farmers. Turner, 77, is a former advertising man turned ordained minister who retired to the hills to tend to his 21/2-acre U-Pick. All that pruning and tending to the trees is more exercise than he’d get at a health club, he said. Starr, 81, is a retired UC Irvine neurology professor who bought his orchard in the late 1990s, became the first certified organic farm in town and now has 1,000 trees — 500 apple, 500 pears.

The growers are hardly dilettantes, however. They put in long hours, especially in late summer and fall prepping for the tourist onslaught.

Young plucked a Jonathan apple from a branch, bit into it with a satisfying snap, then showed the core. The seeds were not completely brown, which “shows it’s not quite ready to pick.” Yet, bowing to demand, Young opened Calico’s gates last weekend regardless.

“The phone’s been ringing off the hook,” he said. “We’re now on Facebook, and our page has gotten 600 likes in the past week. People want their apples, and they’ll be upset if we aren’t open. You can’t blame them.”

Starr, Rivera and Turner say this year is a bumper crop – a relief after two down years – but Young, whose experience gives him the long view, says it’s only slightly above average. One thing that’s constant is the parade of U-pickers who descend each fall, happy to pluck whatever is offered. Quality, not quantity, rules, Young said.

“Julian apples are smaller than what’s at supermarkets, but they’re sweeter,” he said. “Vons trains people to like (apples) big and red and shiny and round. But I’d put our apples up against anyone’s.”

Up in Oak Glen

Apple picking, Dennis Riley insists, should not be confined to just, well, picking apples. What Riley offers at Riley’s Apple Farm, one of a cluster of 12 farms and apple stands in Oak Glen, carved into the verdant hills of the San Bernardino Mountains 7 miles east of Yucaipa, is a total “family apple experience.”

That means cider presses and apple slicing by an old-fashioned water wheel, as well as other countrified activities as hay rides, archery, rope making, corn husk doll manufacture and tomahawk throwing.

Sounds a lot like Apple Hill, right?

“Yes,” Riley said. “In fact, I think people from up there (Apple Hill) came down here to study how we did it, how to put together an entertainment community around apples.”

Riley, who has been in business since 1978, has learned a thing or two harvesting Fuji and Braeburn and Spartan varieties over the years. His most important lesson: People think apples taste better if they pick them theirselves.

“U-pick is such a family experience,” he said. “That’s what really brings people out. It becomes an event for them. If you give them a living history farm to go with it, like we do in Oak Glen, then it becomes an event for people. That’s why we do the U-pick every day. I know other places (in Glen Oak) just like to sell from the stand, but I found that’s not what draws people.”

Oak Glen’s 12 farms are privately owned and technically not affiliated but, like Apple Hill, band together as a community to be a one-stop place for tourists’ apple needs.

“What we’ve got going for us,” he added, “is that we’re in a very picturesque setting. We’re at 4,500 to 5,000 feet, and the area is very green. We’ve even got a lot of black oak trees on the hillside, which is very unusual for Southern California. That makes us more of a destination than just stopping off the roadside somewhere.”

A bite out of Tehachapi

If Julian and Oak Glen are worthy Southern California rivals to Apple Hill’s tourist hegemony, Tehachapi has fallen on relatively hard times.

Sure, this high-elevation (4,000 feet) burg in the mountains separating the Kern County agricultural basin and the Mojave Desert still is known for its apple production. And it’s annual Apple Festival, set to take place Saturday in the town’s historic Railroad Park draws hundreds from in and out of the area. But suburban sprawl, a lackluster economy and a season of too-hot weather with scant rainfall has taken a bite out of production and profits.

Where once there were more than 20 apple orchards stitched across the rolling hillsides, now that number has been reduced to fewer than 10. Some, such as longtime favorite RB Family Orchard, had so few crops this year that it opened and closed its season in September. Others have sold the land to developers and moved on.

“Fifty years ago,” said Andrew Pulford, standing in his Appletree Orchard off of Highline Road, “you could’ve looked out and seen orchards all throughout the town. Not like that any more. A lot of the other orchards were in the main part of town. And as the town grew, it kind of forced those orchards out. But I’d say we’ve still got about 80 to 100 acres of apple orchards in this area. ”

Pulford’s 10 acres, featuring 15 varieties of apples, is thriving amid the downturn. He figures about 2,000 school kids make the U-pick trek to the rows and rows of semi-dwarf trees each season. And, judging solely by one recent midweek morning, drive-up traffic from locals and passers-by off nearby Highway 58 remains brisk.

The Ennises, David and DeLynn, drove 90 minutes from Ridgecrest in the desert just to load up several sacks of apples, everything from standard-issue Red Delicious to hybrids such as Jonagolds — a cross between Jonathans and Golden Delicious. The couple was too late for Galas, which come to fruition in August, but also mulled a selection of Melrose and Fujis. .

“We used to have relatives in the valley, and when we’d come across the Tehachapi summit we’d get the apples,” DeLynn said. “I found out these were the best apples ever, the best tasting. They vary a little year to year. I heard this was a bad year. But this place is pretty consistent.”

Pulford, whose parents started farming apples 35 years ago with an orchard closer to town but moved to higher ground at their current site 20 years ago, said he’s weathered the tough times by looking at the long view. This year may have been drought-stricken, and he may have had to start irrigating sooner — each tree, by the way, received 70 gallons of water three to five times a week for 12 weeks — but the good years have outnumbered the bad. He’s so bullish, in fact, that last spring he planted two additional acres of trees that will eventually yield three more varieties.

“When we planted this orchard, the varieties we selected on timing, so that everything wasn’t ready at once,” he said. “And then we wanted to provide something different for people and extend the season. In a typical day (in fall), we’ll do 60 to 100 boxes, which is a little more than a bushel — about 60 pounds in each.”

Most adults, Pulford said, prefer to pick their apples not from the limbs but from the bins. That way, he said, the bad apples have been tossed and the choice ones washed, cleaned and buffed by a machine in the garage next to the farm stand. You can walk away with a half a bushel, enough for several pies and weeks worth of sack lunches, for $25.

Yet, Rochelle Pearce, who brought toddlers Paige and Fletcher to Pulford’s for a U-pick outing, said her kids relish the experience of plucking fruit from branches. It makes the eating experience, she said, that much more special.

Only problem: “They get so much that we’re eating apples all winter long,” she said. “We’re making applesauce, apple muffins, jam, pies. This is our third trip this year. U-pick is entertaining for kids.”

That’s what keeps Alice Knaus, of Knaus Ranch, in business. Unlike Pulford, she doesn’t do huge retail business (though she has added a store selling apple-related products). No, Knaus, who has had her 10-acre orchard for 25 years, relies solely on the U-pick phenomenon. She doesn’t harvest any of the crop — Red Delicious and Golden Delicious are her varieties — and doesn’t sell to farmers markets or at a fruit stand.

“I have customers who came as children, and they’re bringing their children, and we even get some third generation,” she said. “I only carry two kinds because I don’t want to be in-season all the time.”

She runs the place herself, along with her daughter, Christine, who was busy on this particular day talking all things apples with a series of Bakersfield elementary-school students, 90 in all, out for a field trip. She held out a plump Red Delicious in her left hand and an even rounder Golden Delicious in her right.

“The red one is sweet, the yellow is kind of tart,” she told the kids. “When you see the yellow on the tree, that means they’ve got more sugar and they’re sweet and sour at the same time.”

A girl up front asked, “Why?”

“That’s just the way nature goes,” Christine said.

The girl looked down and said, “I want sweet and juicy apples.”

Don’t we all? Which is why, each fall, we shuffle off to Apple Hill on October weekends or, if struck with a Johnny Appleseed wanderlust, go farther afield and give SoCal sweetness a try.