The big news at farmers markets this week had little to do with actual fruits and vegetables as much as our access to them. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced $4 million in awards to help states expand availability of wireless technology in farmers markets so they can participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a.k.a. food stamps.

“This funding will help SNAP customers increase their opportunities to access healthy, local foods,” said Merrigan. “When we couple this approach with strategies like the education, cooking demonstrations, and community support often found at farmers markets, consumption of healthy foods should rise even more.”

The bottom line for local markets could mean an increase in revenues to the tune of thousands of dollars. Right now, approximately 1000 of the nation's 7000 farmers markets accept SNAP. The down economy has also resulted in a 400% increase in SNAP purchases at participating farmers markets. Adding the wireless technology to accept SNAP knocks down a pretty big barrier to fresh food access, especially in neighborhoods where the closest apple is at the local convenience store.

But you came here for the cherries. Our favorite of the firsts — the Sequoia — unsurprisingly sold out before we could hit the Murray Family Farm stand at the Hollywood market this past Sunday. The Sequoia is a cherry game changer.

Brooks cherries at Avila and Sons at the Hollywood market.; Credit: Felicia Friesema

Brooks cherries at Avila and Sons at the Hollywood market.; Credit: Felicia Friesema

The first-season cherries of a decade ago were more thrilling for what they implied than for how they tasted. Often those first crops were small fruited, pinkish harvests with soft flesh and only a fraction of what you'd call cherry flavor. But seasonal eaters flocked anyway just for a welcome change from a citrus heavy winter. That changed in 2002 when a genetics company in Le Brand, CA was awarded their patent for the Sequoia cherry (a.k.a Glenred USPP12859). The Sequoia is a masterful cross between another early variety — the Brooks (also currently in season) — and the Tulare, busting the early-season stigma with big, tight-skinned fruits rich with sweetness and just a touch of tart imbedded in juicy,wine-colored flesh. It beat the Bing to market and stretched the definition of peak season for local cherries.

Murray Family Farms does have the Sequoia (for maybe another couple of weeks tops) along with the Brooks and the Royal Lee. They grow 17 different varieties of cherries in their Bakersfield orchards, all of which will eventually appear on their market tables between now and the early July. This year's crop was spared the trauma of a late rain, keeping fruits whole and unsplit (Vickie Murray will tell you that the sound of cherries splitting in a rainstorm is the same as the sound of a heart breaking). The warm winter we had is keeping the harvests from reaching last year's record breaking numbers, but the quality is still top notch. Choose for firm, dark fruit with tight skin and flexible stems. The warm weather we've been having right now couldn't be better timed, cherry-wise. Higher temps push up the sugar in the fruit, making for a sweeter pick.

You can find Murray Family Farms at the Hollywood, Ojai, Palm Springs, Santa Clarita, Santa Monica (Wed.), Torrance, and Woodland Hills.

LA Weekly