BRENTWOOD -- Some of Edward Marcel's fondest childhood memories are centered on autumn family trips to the cider mills and apple orchards near Detroit. Like many others, the 31-year-old Brentwood resident is hoping to create those same family memories at far East Contra Costa's U-pick stands.
"I realized those same experiences were being had by families visiting the cherry orchards in Brentwood every spring," said Marcel, who created a Brentwood cherries Facebook page to attract others to the area.
"It's not just picking cherries. It's the conversations you have together on the car ride there and back. It's packing your picnic lunch together and enjoying it beneath the trees. It's making a family recipe afterward with the cherries you picked together."
With this year's U-pick season starting early because of the warm, dry winter, and now in full swing, other locals are trying to capitalize on the popularity of social media, smartphones, websites and mobile apps to draw customers.
Harvest Time, a Brentwood nonprofit that promotes at least 40 growers in the area, recently launched a revamped website with funding from Brentwood and is creating a mobile app that will launch next week to draw more visitors to the region's U-pick stands and foster agricultural tourism here.
Harvest Time Vice President Sean McCauley said U-pickers can make a "daycation" out of their trips to the farms by patronizing hotels, stores and restaurants in the area.
"It is good, quality time with the family. They don't have to spend a lot of money to have a good time," he said. "The app will put the word out that Brentwood has these small, quaint orchards where you can pick. There is no better way than social media to reach people and show them that there is a resource in their backyard where they can spend the weekends."
This season, Harvest Time printed 10,000 fewer copies of its U-pick maps than last year because of the popularity of smart phones and tablets. Harvest Time officials estimate their marketing efforts attract at least 200,000 visitors annually to Brentwood-area farms.
"The map shows people from San Francisco and San Jose where they can do U-pick and find fresh produce in our area, but it also contributes to the local economy," said Harvest Time secretary and local farmer Barbara Frantz. "Nowadays, everyone is using the Internet to find out what they want to buy, what they want to do and where they want to go on the weekends."
For his part, Marcel, who is not a farmer but a fan of fresh cherries, created a Brentwood Cherries Facebook page several years ago. His Facebook campaign informs U-pick enthusiasts from around the Bay Area about the crops available at local produce stands, picking conditions and farm-fresh produce recipes and photos.
"Since inception, my aim has been to offer an inviting forum for fans to share thoughts and experiences with others," Marcel said. "New technologies aid in the discovery of new adventures and offer a means to share old memories."
Marcel said that smaller farms have benefited from positive customer recommendations on the Brentwood Cherries page.
The crowds have already been out picking fruit for several weekends this season, with a cherry crop that is light and sweet and a predicted short season, according to East County growers. Typically, the start of the U-pick season is not until the weekend before Memorial Day weekend.
Local farmers are saying a mild winter likely produced smaller quantities of summer fruit. According to Harvest Time, all of the summer crops will arrive about seven to 10 days ahead of schedule and the cherry season will continue over the next 40 days.
"Brentwood cherries aren't just delicious and nutritious fruit. They are what brings together thousands of families every spring from all around Northern California," Marcel said. "They help us forget our burdens and help us appreciate the most important thing in life, which is each other."
Contact Paula King at 925-779-7174. Follow her at Twitter.com/PMKPaula.