ORCHARD GAP — For two Virginians with century old farms, the local cherry harvest is a sweet, intense frame of time to be savored on its’ own, yet a signal the thick of the mountain harvest is just beginning.
Providing variety, flavor and early cash flow, cherries continue to do their part at Frank Levering and Donald Ayers orchards, coaxing in customers from all over the United States.
Year after year, the cherry, belonging to the Genus Prunus of the Rosaceae (rose family), has boldly heralded the lengthier season of the peach, plum and nectarine, also of the Prunus family, then gracefully bowed out at her seasons’ end. The apple season then makes the final curtain call in late October at both orchards.
For all its pomp, the Virginia cherry season lasts only about three to four weeks, ending around the last week of June.
The scarlet, yellow-orange and deep red-purple starlets of both farms at last made their way into the hands of a hungry audience recently, once nearly a week of rain tapered off.
Tarts and sweets, with names such as Montmorency, Viva, and Stella, glistened from cardboard trays and brightly colored buckets and were heavy on the trees at both orchards.
Customers jostled their way to the purchase table to get any pickings that were minimal due to the heavy rain. Others, with the bright burst of recent sunshine, strode out with buckets in hand, determined to pick cherries.
Levering Orchard features more than 50 varieties with 3,000 cherry trees, distinguishing it as the largest cherry orchard, south of New York, said owner Frank Levering. Less than ten miles away, Ayers Orchards offers between 30-40 varieties of cherries.
Grandparents Ralph and Clara Levering, Quakers, started the Levering orchard in 1908.
Customers are loyal to their variety of cherry, some return each year to pick from the same tree, said Levering.
The sweet cherry is usually savored fresh off the tree or found in fresh recipes of locals, while the tart is most sought after by wholesale buyers, processed, frozen or canned.
Hard-pressed to give his favorite recipe, Levering said, “A tart cherry pie you cannot beat.” Still a purist at heart, he quickly added, “But I can sink my teeth into fruit.”
The cherry season though sweet can be demanding, especially when there is heavy rainfall. Greater than average makes the work more concentrated, with time being of the essence. Excess rain shortens the life of the cherry.
This years’ season is such a harvest. As of last Tuesday 6.4 inches of rainfall had fallen in less than a week, just before peak harvest time.
“You wind up trying to salvage what you can, ” said Levering, expertly and quickly separating cherries into buckets as he spoke.
Most of those not making fresh grade, still have a place. They are put in the category of wine cherries, available to the consumer and local wineries.
The heavy rain affected the appearance of cherries by splitting some of them at both orchards.
Looks can be deceiving. “The best tasting cherries are the cracked ones, ” Levering said his father, Sam Levering, often told him.
Levering credited his father, who studied horticulture at Cornell University, with showing him what he knows about cherry farming. He also spoke of his father’s willingness to share information with others and his “good heart.”
“He had the only cherry orchard in Virginia in 1972, that was big-time. Dad was the pioneer, I saw and imitated him, you need pioneers and people willing to take a chance,” said Levering.
His father first took a chance on cherries in the 1960’s by making a place for them in the orchard and removing some apple trees.
Recently adding four more cherry varieties, Levering said the leading star of his orchard remains the self-pollinating Black Gold developed by Cornell graduate and family friend Bob Anderson.
Levering shared two fundamental tips for the novice wanting to grow a successful cherry tree.
“I might recommend a self-pollinating variety,” said Levering. He suggested as good choices Stella or Black Gold and recommended Stark Brothers Nursery as a supplier.
Literally, past and present speaks volumes around each farmer and their orchards. The Blue Ridge Mountains act as a natural backdrop, protective barrier and silent audience of their handi-work as it did generations before them.
Both farmers acknowledged their orchards’ advantageous locations. They said due to the protection afforded by the warm valley air, flowing around the south ridge, meeting the colder air of the mountains, surface crops like cherries can thrive. The effect is known as the thermal belt.
The farmers have unique styles, but share key similarities.
Each spoke of his respective interest as the single family sibling with a desire to continue in the orchard business; the influence of the family patriarchs on their success in farming; and a desire to grow fruit since their youth.
Both pointed out the remnants of old timber as a reminder of where their kin once lived and farmed; the very dirt in their hands they are responsible for, a century later.
Like some farmers of old, these modern day farmers’ eyes flared passionately when conveying the importance of growing “fresh at the farm,” and a need to supply the local community. They emphasized importance of keeping dollars within the local region.
Ayers explained that the local farmer has the advantage over the distant farmer because he can hold the fruit on the vine as long as necessary to make it the sweetest possible. Then, he said, make it immediately available to buyers.
“We call it sun-kissed,” said Ayers.
Ayers, once a crop adjuster with 20 years experience, shared another key feature of successful orchard farming.
He emphasized the importance of knowing fruit varieties and how to cycle and stagger the planting of early and late varieties.
“That knowledge can turn a three-month season into a six-month one,” said Ayers.
In effect, it is a way to provide all the land has to offer, but it is a lot of hard work, he said.
Ayers’ first Flav-o-rich peaches were beginning to ripen in contrast to the dark blue expanse of mountains, not far from the peaking cherries. Beside the peach trees lay a meadow filled with yellow wildflowers.
“This is what I see when I go to work every day,” he said with a smile.
Levering, a former Hollywood television script and screenwriter who studied Divinity at Harvard University, utilizes the natural amphitheatre effect of the orchard’s location in all facets of his work.
He founded the Cherry Orchard Theatre” located in his orchard, then built a natural stage to bring regional historical stories alive through his script writing and local dramas.
He compared good writing to good farming. “To be any good at either of them you have got to take risks. You can’t play it safe,” he said.
Remnants of his grandmother’s old-timey rose varieties still bloom near the theatre stage, where Levering’s script, ‘Far Appomattox’ will be this summer’s drama beginning in July.
After working the cherry orchard each day, Levering said he returns to his condo in Mount Airy to finish the character development of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.
Ayers said his great grandmother first met his grandfather at a corn shucking after she came to Orchard Gap looking for work. Together, they built the acreage by selling apples for $1 in town and in turn buying more land.
In 1981, he rented the orchard and equipment, worked the land himself, then, in 1983, bought the land and tractor.
“It paid for itself in two years,” said Ayers.
Ayers has added apple packing and fruit shipping to his farming business. His sister and his great-niece, Autumn Arnder, help out in sales and make homemade apple butters, and jams from the fruits.
Ayers, a self-proclaimed mountain man, called his good fortune to be doing what he loves in prime Virginia conditions, “something like luck of the draw.”