BLOSSOM
Gary Kazanjian  /  AP
Pink blossoms are shown off the blossom trail Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2006 in a fruit orchard in Reedley, Calif.
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updated 3/6/2006 3:56:20 PM ET 2006-03-06T20:56:20

Silva Esajian is getting ready for some unexpected visitors.

In the tiny shop at the edge of her family's orchard, she and an employee quickly arrange gift sets of nuts and dried fruits as the snow-white petals of almond trees dance in the breeze outside.

The 20-acre almond farm she bought in August with her husband, Edward, is a stop on the Fresno County Blossom Trail, which brings busloads of visitors during the blooming season from February to April.

"It's my first Blossom Trail," says Esajian. "We're going to stay open longer. We're getting a lot of city people who are fascinated by the trees because they look like they go for miles."

The 90-mile trail through peach, plum, apple, orange and nut orchards shows off the picturesque side of the San Joaquin Valley's staple industry: agriculture.

But the colorful treetops set against the majestic peaks of the Sierra Nevada are part of a changing landscape. Already the trail has been altered several times since its 1988 inception to accommodate the region's growing population.

"Development has edged orchards out on certain legs of the trail," says Linda Terry, chairwoman of the Blossom Trail Committee.

Still, the trail remains a popular destination for church groups, motorcycle clubs, senior citizens, families taking a Sunday drive and tourists looking for a day trip away from California's metropolitan centers.

The bare branches begin to bud in early February. Soon, the sweet-smelling flowers will become the fruits and nuts that feed the nation.

"It's like the landscape is waking up," says Dody Laemmlen, administrative director for the Reedley Chamber of Commerce.

Blue signs guide visitors along country roads through the white, pink and violet blooms. The hues change as at least a dozen different crops take turns showing off their colorful display.

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Blossom trails of a single fruit are popular in many states, but it's the variety of crops that sets the San Joaquin Valley apart, Terry says. A study by the California Department of Transportation showed traffic in the area increases by about 30 percent in February and March.

Some growers let visitors walk the orchards while others simply sell their goods at roadside fruit stands that range from a few wicker baskets to drive-through stores.

It took a while for some farmers to warm up to the idea of letting strangers walk on their farms, but many soon saw the business opportunity presented by the Blossom Trail.

Simonian Farms, just outside the Fresno city limits, is a 20-acre, family-owned operation that has grown about 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables for more than 100 years. It sells Blossom Trail mementos and fresh and dried fruit from the gift shop.

The trail has spawned others even in Fresno County. A Fruit Trail featuring roadside fruit stands follows in May and the Christmas Tree Trail lets families pick their tree from local farms.

"People take what they eat for granted," says Stacey Grote, operations manager at Simonian Farms. "This is the true history of California."

Fresno County estimates the combined value of its crops was about $750 million in 2004, making it the richest agricultural county in the state. California leads the nation in almonds, plums, apricots and many of the other crops grown along the trail.

The trail also helps bring tourists to the county's small cities, says Kristi Johnson, spokeswoman for the Fresno County Tourism Office. Cities like Sanger, Reedley and Orange Cove hold their own spring festivals to celebrate the citrus blossoms, with arts and crafts, local museums, music and races.

"It's small-town America," Laemmlen said. "There's a strong draw to go into these small communities for the nostalgia and to go into nature for the beauty."

If You Go:

FRESNO COUNTY BLOSSOM TRAIL: (888) 549-4900. The trail begins south of Fresno on Highway 99, with the first stop at Simonian Farms. Map, directions, points of interest and a guide to various blossoms available on the Web site. The Orange Harvest Festival is April 1 in Orange Cove.

SIMONIAN FARMS: 2629 South Clovis Ave., Fresno, Calif.; (559) 237-2294. Open daily, 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

LUKE'S ALMOND ACRES: 11281 S. Lac Jac Ave., Reedley, Calif.; (888) 711-8411. Open Monday- Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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