May 26, 2011 6:00 AM



Late Saturday morning, a steady stream of cars turned off Highway 101 in Gaviota and entered a dirt parking lot.  The sign at the entrance said "closed," but those in the know knew it didn't apply to them. They were VIPs.

Clad in baseball caps, T-shirts, jeans or shorts, and sunglasses, they'd arrived for the first day of blueberry picking season at Restoration Oaks Ranch.

For about five years, beginning around late April or early May, the ranch has opened up its 22 1/2-acre blueberry farm to the public for U-picks, the pick-it-yourself pastime popular with families and foodies alike.  It got a bit of a late start this year because the area had a series of unseasonably hot days alternating with very cool days, explained Ed Seaman, business manager for Santa Barbara Blueberries, the ranch's blueberry operations.   "So the bushes were going, 'Springtime. Not. Springtime. Not,' " he said.

But this sunny day, the bushes knew without a doubt it was springtime and were putting out luscious berries for the invited guests — members of Santa Barbara Blueberries' email list, made up of past customers.   Starting Friday, the picking will be open to everyone else daily through August.  At a rustic wooden farm stand near the entrance, visitors borrowed metal buckets and were told to look for the purple flag, which marked the spot where the pickin' was ripe.

A scenic quarter-mile walk from the parking lot took them past a pond. Its edges were brimming with wild mustard, purple thistle and marshy grasses, as well as bird life. Visitors can cross a bridge onto an island in the pond or eat a picnic lunch in the shade of a sprawling black oak tree.

The blueberry bushes grow on a flat, wide strip between golden hills dotted with coastal and Pacific oaks. Because of its proximity to wilderness, pickers often see turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks soaring in circles high above them and cows roaming in the distance — a vestige of the property's cattle-ranching past. (The bushes are covered with fine netting to protect them from feathered interlopers.)

On Saturday, about 30 people, including several families with young kids, were spread out among the long rows as the sun beat down on them. By the end of the day, more than 200 would show up.  Except for the twittering of birds, an occasional child's voice and the lowing of a cow, it was quiet: Both young and old were intently focused on collecting berries.

Andy Southard, 5, was a blur of motion, never pausing as he reached for the indigo orbs and stuffed them in his mouth, over and over again.  Needless to say, his pail wasn't getting very full.  "I like them!" he declared. "And the color of them."  While the dusky blue-purple of the berries was pretty cool-looking, he really enjoyed seeing the squishy green insides — that is, when he wasn't devouring them.

"We've come here several times every season because it's fun," said his mom, Kathy Southard, 44, of Santa Barbara, while Andy and his brother, Shawn, 8, kept picking berries. "They're so delicious and fresh."  She said they'd later dry them and sprinkle them over cereal, freeze them for smoothies, and use some to make pie and jam.  She guessed they'd take home four bucketfuls that day. (Each pail is about 40 ounces.) "It depends on how tired they get," she added with a smile.

Though the plants — mainly Southern Highbush varieties — can grow up to 12 feet tall, they're pruned for easy picking. Most are waist- or chest-high, so adults can pluck them while standing. And the kids can swoop in on the lower berries their parents can't reach.

The farm uses "no sprays or pesticides," said Mr. Seaman.  While blueberries grow easily in the acidic soils of the northeastern and midwestern U.S., the non-natives aren't as happy in the Central Coast's more alkaline soil. To get them to grow, workers inject the soil with an agricultural blend of sulfuric acid.  Owned by Rolland and Venetia Jacks, the farm has 14 varieties of blueberries, with Emerald, Jewel, Misty, O'Neal, Sharpblue and Star among the most abundant. Each row has alternating kinds of blueberries to promote cross-pollination.  The berries vary in flavor, texture and density, according to Mr. Seaman. For example, Emerald has a mild sweet flavor, while Jewel has a bit more of a tang to it.  Later in the season, Maru and Ochlockonee, two Rabbiteye varieties, will come on line — they're so named because the indentation on the large berries resembles the pupil of an eye.  Besides taste, you can also spot the differences in the color of the leaves and the size of the bushes. Mr. Seaman encourages people to taste as they go.  "You'll find your favorites," he said. While picking a variety of berries creates a tasty mixture of flavors, "some people go back to the same spot every year."   From the beginning of the season through August, the plants keep producing. "You pick a fruit off this plant and at the peak of the season (in July), you'll get ripe fruit right in its place in as little as three days," Mr. Seaman said. They'll keep at room temperature for up to two weeks.

Cissy Enzmann, 53, and her husband, Manny Cano, 58, of Whittier were just finishing up their U-pick but couldn't resist plucking a few more berries as they headed to the end of their row. They said they've been coming to the farm for several years en route to wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley.  "We're into being healthy. And where could you find this close to L.A.?" said Ms. Enzmann, a dietician, holding her bucket. From now till the fall, they'll probably stop by about once a month.  Blueberries are high in phytonutrients ("like any fruits or vegetables with colors") and antioxidants, said Ms. Enzmann. "Studies have shown they can decrease your chance of getting certain cancers or heart disease."  She said she'll just eat them fresh and take them to work to share with co-workers. "Some people make pies, but I don't want to ruin 'em," she said.

Down another row of bushes, Dustin Le from Monrovia had already filled nearly three pails.  He discovered the farm on his way to a friend's wedding in Pismo Beach last year. This year, he made sure he was there as soon as the farm opened in the morning and brought along several friends.  "It's my favorite fruit," said Mr. Le, 28, smiling, as he plucked away. "I'm known by my friends as the blueberry guy. Every time it's my birthday, they know they can't go wrong with something blueberry."

A little later, Cristina Gonzalez, a private chef from Santa Barbara (and former executive chef for Lazy Acres) in her early 40s, was walking back down the dirt path with her niece, great-nieces, great-nephew and other family members, all carting buckets.  "This is, like, our fourth year," she said. "I just love being out in nature and picking blueberries. And it's being connected to where your blueberries are coming from."  She planned to use some of her haul in her Restoration Blueberry Salad, named after the ranch.  "I like that this farm has no pesticides," she added.  Her niece, Cecilia Tavera, 36, whose four kids were with them, agreed: "It's teaching kids at a young age where your foods come from."

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