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A group of locals dig for vegetables at Gilcrease Orchard, 7800 N. Tenaya Way in Las Vegas early in the morning. (Photo by Shelley Fisher)
A group of locals dig for vegetables at Gilcrease Orchard, 7800 N. Tenaya Way in Las Vegas early in the morning. (Photo by Shelley Fisher)

Las Vegans Dig the Gilcrease Orchard

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Try to convince its devotees that Gilcrease Orchard is just 60 acres of desert farmland in northern Las Vegas.

To them it’s so much more — The motif screams recreation. The mantra whispers education.

The orchard opens to a pair of towering tents, crowned with white banner-flags shielding the cash registers from the early morning sun. The soft, dried foliage underfoot is reminiscent of the sawdust floors of the circus. Entrance is free.

Gilcrease Orchard flings open its gates every May, launching produce-picking season. Las Vegas locals chat their farm-going experiences about why it’s less about beets and more about spending Saturday mornings with Mother Nature.

The orchard blossoms into ripe fruits and vegetables ready for picking. The working farm anticipates a summer bounty of tomatoes, peaches, apricots, zucchini, squash and apples, with a crowd of loyal followers to harvest the coveted crops.

“This is really more about the entertainment and education factors than the produce,” said Mark Ruben, director of the orchard. “Come see where your food really comes from because most people have no idea.”

Ruben said grocery store fare lacks taste and color because it’s picked too early, before it ripens, to ensure the delicate greengrocery survives shipping and endures stored “in the back” for a year or more. Merchants gas the produce into ripening when ready to sell.

At the farmstead they march to the beat of a different drum.

UNLV alumnus, Sophia, shows off her bounty during an early morning you-pick visit to Gilcrease Orchard. (Photo by Shelley Fisher)

UNLV alumnus, Sophia, shows off her bounty during an early morning you-pick visit to Gilcrease Orchard. (Photo by Shelley Fisher)

Staff hand out plastic shopping bags and maps to visitors passing by the green and white greet house enroute to the fields. Wheelbarrows and little, red wagons sit lined up waiting to haul the harvest.

The long, hill-and-valley rows of root vegetables resemble skee ball lanes with the

Saturday-morning gleaners taking aim to roll rather than bending and mining for carrots.

With her knees to the ground and hands in the dirt, Wendy, shares her reasons for coming to the farm.

“It’s local. It’s fresh,” she said. “It tastes better than what you get in the store.”

Lisa and her husband agree. The couple relocated to Las Vegas this year, found the orchard online at www.thegilcreaseorchard.org and signed up to receive its newsletter. “It’s just kind of a hidden gem in the desert,” Lisa said. “We just love the outdoors and the fresh fruits and vegetables that they offer here.”

Treetop to tabletop is the freshest, cleanest and greenest path produce can take.

Youngsters Donna and Whitt Whittington, 82 and 86 respectively, agree the orchard cuts out the middleman. Donna explains that Gilcrease stands as an ultra-healthy one-step-up from the farmers market. The energetic pair came to pick veggies for the first time in 10 years.

“I saw the ad in the paper,” Donna said. “I just thought let’s go see what they have.” Kale clipping in the orchard is the summertime plan for this spring chicken.

Chickens are coming to the orchard this spring. Three buildings stand erected on the site ready to accommodate the birds. Starting in May the public can purchase fresh eggs at Gilcrease.

More information will follow as news of this fowl occurrence hatches.

The four, flourishing varieties of kale, have grown tall enough practically dwarf this vibrant couple. (Photo by Shelley Fisher.)

The four, flourishing varieties of kale, have grown tall enough practically dwarf this vibrant couple. (Photo by Shelley Fisher.)

In the distance a gentle voice patiently instructs, “Good. Cut the tall stuff really low,” Rick said to his children. He began bringing Ava Jean and Kano to the orchard as soon as they were old enough to participate.

“It’s just fun and it’s good for them. We get to pick our own foods,” said the dad of two. “They get more involved in eating their vegetables if they know where they came from. They will actually eat salad tonight.”

When asked about her visit to the orchard Elizabeth said, “Priceless.” The weekend warrior and mother of two treasures the time she spends picking leafy greens with daughters Vanessa, 16, and Melissa, 14. “They love their rooms and the cell phones too much,” she said. “This kind of gets them away from that. They need some family time.” She and her husband plan a follow-up breakfast at a restaurant afterward then home.

The day winds down with the family at the dinner table eating together and talking over the veggies they picked. Gilcrease is an integral part of their family dynamic.

Triumphant shouts sporadically cut the serenity of the garden. Harvesting vegetables spawns into a competitive sport of strategy and technique.

Abbey, 5, smiles ear-to-ear, dangles a bulb the size of a baseball from its foot-long stem and plods skippingly toward her family. She receives praise and applause from her uncle who taught his niece how to forage the best beets. “Good job,” he tells her and the two resume their hunt. Root veggies beware.

The exit table offers home-made sweets-and-stickies. Almond butter sells for $9 and the three flavors of peanut butter; plain, honey and chocolate cost $6 each. Apple cider returns in June and is pure Gala. It takes eight pounds of the apple to make one $4 half gallon.

The orchard encourages volunteerism and invites the public to participate in a proactive, win-win farmhand adventure. Pick up a new skill like thinning peach trees while simultaneously helping the farm thrive. Walk-ins are welcome. Stop in any time to lend the farm a hand.

Gilcrease is a nonprofit. It pulls its own weight. Sales are its main source of sustainability and events booked for private functions generate a portion of its income. The orchard provides the venue, and the celebrants provide the accoutrements, tables and chairs, and food and drink.

Birthdays, weddings, quinceaneras, group tours and field trips can all be accommodated.

This New York transplant shows off his bag of hand-picked veggies. (Photo by Shelley Fisher)

This New York transplant shows off his bag of hand-picked veggies. (Photo by Shelley Fisher)

Laurie Ruben, who is both Mark’s wife, and the field trip and event coordinator for the orchard, said the field trips are structured to align with the Common Core curriculum of the valley’s elementary school system.

“It’s so much fun to watch their reactions when kids see something pulled out of the ground,” said Laurie. “They’ve never seen anything like it before.”

The reservations list and time slots fill quickly. Laurie recommends planners contact the orchard as early as possible in advance for event bookings. Applications can either be submitted online at the website or by phone.

Time on the farm runs according to Mother Nature’s watch. The newsletter reflects that temporal philosophy therefore content is not set in stone. When the apricots are ready for picking orchard hours will change to Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. until noon.

Fall is the busiest time and the year crescendos in a plethora of pumpkins, hay mazes, apple cider donuts and impromptu hay rides. Then Gilcrease goes away, and returns the following season just like any bumper crop.

Gilcrease Orchard is a Las Vegas valley hamlet, an event within an event. Every reach for a peach lives on as a once-upon-a-time success story of swinging the hammer and clanging the bell. Every tug on a carrot tightens the gap between nature’s secrets and man.

At Gilcrease you come for the produce, and stay for the experience.

 

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