Brentwood in Contra Costa County, California, with its temperate climate, rolling hills, and long history of farming, has become known as the “U-Pick Capital of the World.” Ron Nunn, a longtime farmer, recalls how the moniker came to be. It started with ration cards during World War II and a sweet desire for fruit — lots of it.
“Everybody had a ration card for lard, for meat, for shoes, for tires, for gas,” recalls Nunn. “Everybody used all their stamps if they could.” That meant sugar rations as well. Ladies who canned back in the day were looking for something to do with all that sugar, and they heard that Brentwood farmers were growing peaches. “Some of these people that had come out during the dust bowl had a farm background,” Nunn said.
Out-of-towners drove over in their sedans, ready to pick and purchase the sweet, juicy fruit. “They came out to Brentwood in ’42, ’43, or ’44,” Nunn said. “These ladies that came out from Richmond and places like that wanted 200 pounds, not a box of peaches. They wanted to stuff the trunk with peaches.”
Back at their houses, the ladies got to canning, and they shared the news with friends and neighbors of their good fortune finding peaches out in Contra Costa County. The peaches “were gorgeous and they were tasty. And we were overwhelmed with people who wanted to pick and buy peaches,” said Nunn, who added that there were only about three farms growing peaches in the area at that time.
Soon, customer demand for cling peaches — better for canning than the freestone variety being sold at fresh markets — had farmers planting clings. (Freestone peaches have flesh that easily pulls away from the pit, or “stone,” while clingstone peaches have flesh that clings to the pit.)
The success of the peaches led to the ladies wanting pears for canning as well. “Later on, it morphed into cherries, and that’s how it all came together,” Nunn said. “Now there’s not many peaches around here anymore and there’s not many ladies that can peaches anymore.”
“Including me,” added Nunn’s wife, Shirley Nunn.
Even though picking cherries became a fun family outing, the advent of the cherry U-Pick was born partly out of necessity. In the 1970s there was a surplus of the crop but a shortage of the labor needed to harvest it. As had happened earlier on with peaches, cherry growers began opening up their orchards to the public for picking. “Of course, the cherries were much more of a family activity, and so that was the most popular of all,” Nunn said.
We don’t take Brentwood’s reputation as the “U-Pick Capital of the World” lightly. We are proud of our designation — and we have been able to confirm through a hired historian’s research that we have the oldest U-Pick west of the Mississippi as well as the largest number of U-Pick farms within the smallest geographical area.
While peaches may no longer dominate the U-Pick scene in Contra Costa County, Brentwood’s fertile lands continue to offer a bountiful array of fruits such as cherries, strawberries, blackberries, mulberries, pluots, plums, apricots, pumpkins, flowers, tomatoes, and much more. Throughout the year, the farms welcome eager pickers near and far, providing an opportunity to connect with nature, savor the season’s flavors, and experience the wonder that has made Brentwood the U-Pick Capital.