Tantalizing Tastes

Levering Orchard has a cherry disposition.

In 1986, after his father suffered a heart attack, Frank Levering quit his job as a Hollywood screenwriter and moved with his then-wife to tiny Ararat, in Patrick County, just above the North Carolina line. There, Levering took over his family’s 103-year-old orchard. His father, Sam, had decided in 1971 to devote a chunk of his apple orchard to cherry trees because nobody else in Virginia was growing them commercially—and today Levering Orchard is the largest cherry orchard south of New York state. Of the farm’s 54 acres, 31 are in cherries—or about 4,000 trees. “He was a bit of a riverboat gambler,” says Levering of his late father who was trained in horticulture at Cornell University.

Frank Levering grows 47 different cherry varieties—most of them sweet, along with six or seven varieties of sour cherries. In recent years he has been planting more sour-variety trees because, he says, “people are much more interested in sour cherries now than in the past.” Levering has maintained the Cornell connection, and grows experimental varieties sent to him by fruit-science specialists at the university.

The orchard supplies small local stores, but no large grocers. One reason: If it rains when sweet cherries are ripe on the tree, they will split—a cosmetic fault that does not affect taste but puts off consumers. “It’s hard for major chains to rely on us because of that,” says Levering. Instead, he opens his orchard to cherry pickers in early summer every year. The season runs from early June until mid-July, and the farmer estimates that about 15,000 people come through on a good year. “We have a lot of ladders,” quips Levering, who adds that a surprising number of the pickers are foreign nationals—including Chinese students and teachers from the Blacksburg area.

After 25 years of growing cherries, has Levering tired of the tasty, tiny fruit? “I still love ‘em,” he says. A good cherry pie remains “hard to beat,” he says, though his mother preferred to make cherry cobbler. Otherwise, says the farmer, “I drink a little cherry wine from time to time, and have a friend who makes cherry jam for me every year. And I freeze quite a few cherries every year and eat them in the winter—they are great frozen.”

Levering says that he sometimes talks to his 14-year-old son, Henry, about taking over the farm. “He likes to kid me that he doesn’t want to be a farmer. I could make a farmer out of him, if I could ever get him away from his electronic devices.” We didn’t see any gadgets during our visit to Levering Orchard—just hearty trees and richly colored cherry dishes that reaffirm the joy of summer eating. It is a scene far different from Los Angeles, where Levering got one movie made that he co-wrote: Parasite, in 3D. “It was a big hit in 1982,” says Levering, “and happened to be [actress] Demi Moore’s first movie.” LeveringOrchard.com


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