After a few days of welcome rain, the public was treated to a cloudless sunny sky at the first “U-Pick Oranges” event at McKellar Family Farms in Ivanhoe. In the crisp yet mild late-March temperatures, about 130 guests enjoyed strolling through the orchard as they picked and filled their bags with large, juicy oranges. The crowing and clucking of numerous chickens and roosters (and even the call of two peacocks) was cheerful music that accompanied the excited laughter and shouts of the many children as they ran between the rows of trees and stood next to the thick trunks, gazing up through the leafy green, fruit-laden branches.

Smiling staff members from the farm and five student volunteers from Visalia’s V-Tech Agricultural High School greeted arrivals, checked them in and instructed them on the proper selection and method for picking the oranges. “U-pick events are really popular on the East Coast at farms like ours, and we thought it would be fun to do it here,” farmer Bob McKellar said.

The 90-year-old farm where McKellar grew up has been in his family for three generations. He took over management of the farm from his home in Oregon in 1972 after his father passed away, and traveled back and forth to the Central Valley for 30 years before moving back to the farm in 2002.
Farmer Bob has always had a progressive vision for the farm as an educational and agritourism experience for the public, offering behind-the-scenes activities for schools, after-school groups and private tours for several years. Many visitors have never set foot on a farm – or seen an orange tree – before. The student field trips and tours include a tractor ride, the chance to pick oranges, viewing the farm’s large variety of chickens, and watching a short video that shows the process of picking, packing and transporting oranges to market.

The farm was established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2015, and McKellar’s goals now include expansion of these activities to include self-guided walking tours for smaller groups and the general public who visit the area from around the world (as well as local residents). Interactive farm animal, equipment and irrigation exhibits, and an orange-picking grove will give a glimpse into the daily operations of an orange farm and foster knowledge about and appreciation of farming and local foods. (The farm will host a Tree to Table fundraiser dinner the evening of Friday, June 1, at Historic Seven Sycamores Ranch, to raise money for the self-guided walking tour.)

Throughout the U-pick day, attendees had the opportunity to take the tractor ride normally given to school tours. The 45-minute tour traveled a fixed route around the farm’s 182 acres, past orchards growing both trees that were recently planted and others that are 100 years old. Recorded messages at each stop told about how the trees are cared for and how the oranges are harvested.

Farmer Bob started the tour by identifying the types of oranges farmed at McKellar: Navel oranges were picked at the event; Valencia (juice) oranges and Shasta Gold and W. Murcott mandarins – better known as “Cuties” – are also grown in abundance there.

Several machines are used to warm air during cold weather, trim the trees, push the branches into rows and chop them into mulch that is tilled back into the ground to nourish the trees, which each yield an average of 240 pounds of oranges. The micro-irrigation sprinkler system efficiently delivers water directly to every tree’s root system and can be adjusted for each tree depending on how much water is needed. Although maintenance of the trees is done primarily with machines, the oranges are harvested by hand, as they have always been, using clippers, which is exactly how the guest farmers harvested their oranges at the event. Orange trees are ready for their first harvest at 5 years old and generally are harvested until they are 70. When the trees are no longer productive, they are turned into mulch for the orchards.

Kelly Lapadula, McKellar Family Farms tour and marketing manager, spoke about the fun and importance of the U-pick event, saying that it will become an annual occurrence and that there may even be a second one later this spring.

“Our favorite aspect of these events is seeing the look on the kids’ faces when they’re out in the groves picking oranges; there is true joy there, and we are so thrilled that we get to share our farm with the community and with people from around the world,” she said. “Many of the visitors who come here have never been on a farm before, so it’s a privilege to expose them to agriculture and show them where their food comes from.”

There’s no doubt that all who ventured out had a wonderful experience. First-time harvesters’ heads were filled with new knowledge, their hearts with appreciation for the dedication of our farmers, and they are most certainly still enjoying the fruits of their labor in the 500 pounds of oranges that traveled home with them. It was indeed a most “appeeling” day!