Apple, pear growers struggle with fire blight

YAKIMA, Wash. — Fire blight, a bacteria that kills apple and pear trees, has been an accelerating problem the last three springs in Central Washington orchards.

Growers say last June was the worst month. They cut infected limbs and whole trees and burned them. An East Wenatchee agricultural consultant, Nick Stephens, in June said it was the worst he’d seen in 28 years and orchards young and old were in grave danger.

Six months later, Dec. 4, at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association annual meeting in Yakima, Tianna DuPont, Washington State University tree fruit specialist, said everyone knows it was a “hard year” for fire blight, but “we don’t know how hard or how much it cost us.”

A show of hands of a couple hundred growers in the session showed about half dealt with fire blight this year.

Sarah Kostick, a WSU horticultural doctoral candidate, talked about her studies in 2016 and 2017, the first on some cultivars.

“Most apple cultivars are susceptible to some extent to fire blight. It’s difficult to compare studies because of different methods used,” she said.

Kostick and her team inoculated up to 30 shoots per tree on numerous varieties for two years and added other methods to create a multiple matrix survey.

The results show Jonathan, Granny Smith, Gala, Honeycrisp, Cripps Pink, Jonagold, Golden Pinova and McIntosh are highly susceptible to fire flight. Fuji, Cosmic Crisp, Delicious and Rome Beauty were moderately susceptible and Aurora Golden Gala, Empire and Enterprise were of low susceptibility.

Gennaro Fazio, research geneticist at USDA ARS in Geneva, N.Y., said rootstock can become infected in bark wounds at the base or from infection at the top of the tree that spreads to the bottom. He talked about fire blight field trials in Geneva rootstock and said many new varieties, including Jazz and Envy, are sensitive to fire blight.

“Cosmic Crisp (the new Washington state variety) is moderately sensitive, but that’s still sensitive so it’s a concern,” Fazio said.

Fire blight can stay subdued in a tree for a long time and it’s hard to get rid of, he said.

Kerik Cox, associate professor at Cornell University, talked about assessing and minimizing the threat of fire blight following mechanical thinning and hedging and said hedging can be used to remove fire blight.

He also talked about calcium and biological treatments at pink stage of bloom.

Kari Peter, research pathologist at Pennsylvania State University, said fire blight has been a significant challenge in young, high-density and older large-tree apple orchards in that state. She talked about low rate calcium applications.

Fire blight overwinters in trees and reactivates in oozing cankers around blossom time. It is acerbated by extreme heat followed quickly by rain during bloom. It attracts flies and other insects that spread it to blossoms. Within a week or two, infection is ahead of portions of trees that show withering.

Antibiotics, copper fungicides, lime sulfur, other minerals and biological controls are applied before, during and after bloom but at best are 80 percent effective, growers have said.

Farm Bureaus set up California disaster relief funds

SACRAMENTO — The California Farm Bureau Federation has established a Farm and Rural Disaster Fund to help farms, ranches and rural communities damaged by wildfires, floods and other natural disasters.

The fund has been created under the Farm Bureau’s charitable foundation known as the California Bountiful Foundation. Donations maybe made at or

Checks maybe sent payable to: California Bountiful Foundation, Farm and Rural Disaster Fund, 2300 River Plaza Drive, Sacramento, CA, 95833. Attn: Financial Services.

The Butte County Farm Bureau and Butte Ag Foundation have created a Camp Fire Animal Agriculture Assistance Fund.

Quincy hosts farmer consumer awareness day

QUINCY, Wash. — The 37th annual Quincy Farmer Consumer Awareness Day will be held Sept. 8 to celebrate farm life and educate people about the source of their food.

Activities begin with a 6:30 a.m. balloon launch, weather permitting, in Lauzier Park. It will be followed from 7 to 10 a.m. by a Lions Club breakfast at Quincy High School, where most events will be held.

Educational tours begin at the high school at 10 a.m. with grower Larry Schaapman’s 1 1/2-hour “Cruisin’ the Crops” tour by bus.

Larry Jones leads a one-hour tour of Quincy Fresh Fruit at 11 a.m., and Ken Lacy, a local geologist, gives a half-hour presentation at 11 a.m. followed by a three- to four-hour geology tour.

Mark Houten gives half-hour tours of vegetable processor Quincy Foods at noon, 12:45 and 1:30 p.m.

The Farmer Consumer Awareness Day began in 1981 after a Quincy farmer, Dennis Highashiyama, was listening to the late radioman Paul Harvey who was talking with a female listener. She blamed farmers for the high cost of food and said farmers weren’t needed because people got their food from grocery stores.

Highashiyama, who also headed the Central Washington Farm Crops Association, organized the festival to educate the public about how food is produced.

Other Saturday events include: 2- and 5-kilometer runs at 7 and 8 a.m. at Mountain View Elementary School, a 10 a.m. downtown grand parade, an 11 a.m. volleyball tournament, a tractor pull and car show judging at 11:30 and a Rotary Club barbecue from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Farm family of the Year and Honorary Farmer presentations take place at noon.

Cooking competition judging is from 12:30 to 1 p.m. Contestants must bring a dish containing apples, beans, potatoes or corn.

There’s also music, cowboy poetry, a fire department burn demonstration, a children’s petting zoo, exhibits, a quilt show and produce sale. There’s a dusk balloon glow and fireworks.

On Sunday is a 2 p.m. chef extravaganza at White Heron Cellars winery at Trinidad. A guest chef will create dishes from local produce for a buffet and wine tasting.

Favorite blueberry patch shuts down

MONITOR, Wash. — Some might say Crazy Larry came to his senses. He’s retired for the second time.

Crazy Larry’s Blueberry Farm, a favorite Wenatchee-area U-pick, is no more.

“It was too much to keep up with. We want to go see our grandkids (in Pullman and Astoria, Ore.) but for the whole month of July, we always had to be here,” says Larry Rawls, 73, affectionately dubbed “Crazy Larry” by his daughter and granddaughter when they helped him plant blueberry bushes some eight years ago.

Rawls had retired from 40 years as a metal fabricator at Van Doren Sales, a tree fruit packing line manufacturer in East Wenatchee.

He was looking for something to do in retirement. He always liked blueberries. He and his wife, Carolyn, would sometimes buy 30 or 40 pounds at Pan-American Berry Growers in Mossyrock on their way home from Astoria.

So they planted 1.75 acres of their place at Monitor to blueberries and sold U-pick berries for six seasons.

Near the small town of Monitor about five miles northwest of Wenatchee, it quickly became a favorite of neighbors, friends and the public via word-of-mouth.

Rawls enjoyed greeting people and showing them where and how to pick. Carolyn ran the check-in and check-out stand.

“It started as a hobby, but the more we got into it we found out it’s a whole lot of work,” Rawls said. “It’s not that I couldn’t do the work. It’s just very time-consuming.”

Every winter, they pruned the blueberry bushes.

“You do everything you do with tree fruit only you don’t have to climb ladders,” he said. “I didn’t have enough production to warrant hiring help.”

They made enough over the six seasons to recoup their investment and have a little left over, he said.

A year ago, the Rawlses were debating how much longer they wanted to stick with it. They discussed selling the whole place but doubted they could find a buyer wanting to do the work.

So when pruning time arrived they cut down almost all the bushes, saving a few for neighbors, and then sprayed the stubs with brush killer in the spring when the bushes began to sprout.

“We had a pretty good kill, but I have one variety hanging on out there,” Rawls said. “I’ll probably spray it again this fall.”

In the last week, the Rawlses have been fielding five to six calls a day from past customers asking to come pick. They’re disappointed to learn of the closure.

Another U-pick blueberry operation, run by a Leavenworth pear grower, has also closed, Rawls said.

That leaves Blueberry Hills Farms near Manson, on the north shore of Lake Chelan, as perhaps the only one.

Rapid snowmelt causes stream forecasts to drop

YAKIMA, Wash. — Rapid snowmelt in Washington’s mountains and lowland flooding in May has switched streamflow forecasts for the rest of the summer from a surplus to a deficit.

A month ago, above-normal streamflows were forecast for May through September. Now below-normal flows are forecast for June through September by the National Weather Service River Forecast Center in Portland.

The upper Yakima Basin is expected to be at 62 to 72 percent of normal flow for June through September and the lower Yakima at 59 to 71 percent.

“That’s not good news, but everyone should be fine because of full Yakima reservoirs and soil moisture is good,” said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist of the Washington Snow Survey Office of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Mount Vernon.

While the NWS Climate Prediction Center estimates above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation — hot and dry — for Washington for June, July and August, there should be enough water for irrigators and everyone, barring extreme heat and dryness, Pattee said.

Basins with no reservoir storage, such as the Wenatchee and Entiat, should be OK unless the summer becomes excessively hot and dry, he said.

The five mountain reservoirs serving 464,000 acres in and around the Yakima Basin were at 99 percent of capacity and 111 percent of average on June 5, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Chris Lynch, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist, said he anticipates full water supply for junior and senior water right holders in the Yakima Basin.

May’s rapid snowmelt has pushed the “storage control date” forward to between June 11 and 20, he said. That’s when outflows from the five reservoirs, totaling 1,065,400 acre-feet of water, are greater than inflows to the point that drawdowns start. It was June 29 last year.

Yakima River flow at Parker, below Union Gap, was at 11,000 cubic feet per second through May 21 but dropped to 900 by June 3, he said.

“That’s a steady decline showing we’ve lost most of the snow. Flow is now stabilizing,” he said.

Pattee said statewide snowpack is now 97 percent of normal. But he said the number is almost meaningless since there’s virtually no snow left below 5,000 feet elevation.

Peak flooding is over and the Okanogan and Columbia rivers will begin dropping in the next couple of weeks, he said.

Other June through September streamflow forecasts: Columbia River at Grand Coulee Dam, 93 percent of normal; Columbia at The Dalles, 89 percent of normal; Snake River below Lower Granite Dam, 83 percent of normal; upper Columbia (Kettle, Colville, Similkameen, Okanogan and Methow rivers) range from 68 on the Kettle to 104 percent of normal on the Coville; central Columbia (Chelan, Entiat and Wenatchee rivers) 80 percent of normal.

Small garlic farm hit by Okanogan flood

OROVILLE, Wash. — It doesn’t sound like much — a $10,000 to $25,000 loss — but it’s a fair chunk in the annual income of Noah and Heather Burnell.

They’re small growers of garlic, probably one of the most unusual crop losses in this spring’s Okanogan Valley flood. And at 3,500-feet and 3 miles from the Canadian border they’re also probably one of the highest elevation and most northern garlic growers in the Lower 48 states.

Rapid mountain snowmelt has caused the worst flooding of the Okanogan Valley, particularly between Oroville and Tonasket, since 1972. Damage to houses, structures, hay fields and orchards along the Okanogan River will reach into the millions of dollars.

Snowmelt caused ground water to rise, flooding the Burnell’s garlic field at Ellemeham Mountain, 10 miles west of Oroville between Palmer Lake and Nighthawk.

The Burnells haven’t seen anything like it in the 22 years they’ve owned land on the mountain.

“Last year springs were popping up in the middle of the county road and our roads and this year it’s even more. One of our fields was completely under water. We dug ditches to drain it,” said Noah Burnell, 44.

A lot of it was snowmelt on the mountain but there’s always been snowmelt so he suspects some larger change in underground water movement.

The field is about half an acre. Burnell figures he’s lost a majority of last fall’s planting of two of four varieties of garlic. He won’t know how much can be salvaged until July harvest. If the whole field is lost, it would be a third of his annual crop.

It’s a dryland operation, dependent on winter snow and rain.

“Most years we have our fingers crossed that we’ll have enough moisture,” he said.

They have no crop insurance and will try to buy seed from other growers if they can to keep supplying their customers.

Burnell was a carpenter before experimenting with garlic seven years ago. They were not sure it would survive harsh winters at 3,500 feet, but found out it does. Their production has expanded to 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of garlic seed on 1.5 acres on the mountain and at another field in the lowlands on the east shore of Lake Osoyoos east of Oroville.

“We make about $80,000 to $100,000 a year which is very good. We were looking for a crop we could grow as a family and pay the bills,” Burnell said.

It’s labor intensive and they do all the work themselves. Fall planting by hand, one mechanical weeding, a hand weeding and harvesting by hand.

Their crop is certified organic. Bulbs bigger than 2 inches in diameter they sell for seed under their Great Northern Garlic brand and bulbs smaller than that are sold as Okanogan Organic directly to local grocery stores and through a broker to Seattle grocery stores.

“The Okanogan Valley is the Napa Valley of garlic,” Burnell said, “because we have so many small, specialized growers and so many different varieties.”

There are probably 30 to 40 small growers and one of the nation’s largest garlic seed banks, Filaree Garlic Farm, in Omak, he said.

“Conditions here are hot, dry summers and very cold winters which is what garlic needs,” he said.

Gilroy, Calif., where Heather Burnell is from, is where most of the nation’s garlic is grown.

“We had some hail damage one year, but otherwise this is our first natural disaster,” Burnell said. “We’ve never had any winter loss because of the cold.”

Brown marmorated stink bug reports increase

WENATCHEE, Wash. — Brown marmorated stink bugs are on the rise, mostly in Western Washington, according to Washington State University entomologists.

“In three weeks, we received 300 emails and phone calls, mostly from the state’s west side,” said Michael Bush, WSU Extension and entomologist in Yakima.

“We’ve never seen so much activity related to this bug and so quickly,” he said.

Most of the sightings are in King, Pierce and Thurston counties and have been occurring since mid-March as stink bugs emerge from overwintering in people’s homes, Bush said.

The six-legged bugs emit a smell of dirty socks when crushed. Thin white bands on their antennae distinguish them from other stink bug species.

The increase is worrisome to researchers and farmers because the bugs feed on more than 300 host plants and spreads by human movement.

“The more we learn about this stink bug species, the more amazed we are by its generalist feeding habits,” said Elizabeth Beers, entomologist at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee. She’s on a national team of scientists fighting it.

She urged people to keep reporting them with their name, address, date of discovery, numbers and photo of the bugs and email to:

“We would love to come get your bugs for our research if you have an infestation of more than 50,” Beers said.

Called “The Beast of the East,” brown marmorated stink bugs were identified in Pennsylvania in 1996 and caused an estimated 30-percent loss in apple and peach crops in mid-Atlantic states in 2010. Growers there resorted to broad-spectrum synthetic pyrethroid pesticides to control the bugs at the expense of their Integrated Pest Management programs, Beers has said.

Brown marmorated stink bugs were found in Portland, Ore., in 2004 and later in the Willamette Valley, Medford, Hood River and Vancouver. They were first trapped in Yakima in 2012 and have been found in Walla Walla and Wenatchee.

Passion drives small farmer’s aspirations

EAST WENATCHEE, Wash. — It’s just dirt right now, but soon Nate Perkins will be discing the ground for the start of his fourth season as a small-scale urban farmer.

It’s not Seattle or Portland, but his 14 acres surrounded by new housing is about as urban a farm as you can get in this city of 13,000 people on the banks of the Columbia River.

Perkins is among thousands of aspiring farmers in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation who are thriving on small acreages by selling their crops directly to local consumers, often with a side serving of entertainment courtesy of a petting zoo, corn maze, hay ride or other family entertainment.

The USDA defines small farms as generating less than $350,000 in annual gross receipts and on which the owner works. In Washington state, 35,269 farms — or 90 percent of the total — are defined as small.

Kellie Henwood, a regional coordinator of Washington State University’s Small Farms Program, said agritourism — including the other activities besides a farm stand selling crops — is a way for small farm operators to diversify their income sources.

“More and more people are looking for opportunities to connect with their food source, either locally or in their travels,” Henwood said. “Agritourism has shown that farmers are constantly innovating and adapting and without a doubt contributing to the economic development in their communities.”

But what makes Perkins’ small farm unique is its location — smack dab in the middle of a new housing development and just outside the city limits. Instead of the city growing up around an existing farm, he chose the location to take advantage of its easy access to customers. Visibility is good for selling produce right out of the field, as he does, because it’s a high-traffic spot on the south side of four-lane Grant Road leading to the regional Pangborn Memorial Airport. New homes line South Mary Avenue to the west and will soon populate the nearby 207-lot Maryhill Estates subdivision to the south and east. The development will include 96 apartment units and 5 acres for businesses.

Good neighbor

The entire area used to be apple orchards. Perkins’ 14 acres went fallow for years. Pumpkins were grown on a small part of it for a couple of years as a school fundraiser.

Perkins, 41, a fruit salesman for one of Washington’s largest fruit marketers, Chelan Fresh Marketing, wondered why someone didn’t do something bigger.

“I saw it as a massive opportunity,” he said. “The perfect location.”

He views the current and coming housing as a big asset, providing plenty of potential produce customers. And the developers like his farm.

“It’s great. It’s a nice activity for the community during Halloween and he makes nice produce so it’s a win-win for everybody,” said Jason Gaul, a Maryhill Estates partner.

In 2015, Perkins leased the 14 acres and with the help of his then-girlfriend, Annie Weaver, started Annie’s Fun Farm, growing and selling pumpkins, squash, melons and offering family entertainment in the form of a corn maze, an apple sling shot, a big dragon castle bounce house and hay rides.

After a second season, Perkins bought 11 acres, continued leasing 3 acres and entered a third season as sole owner of the business, keeping the name Annie’s Fun Farm.

County records show Perkins paid $825,000 for the 11 acres — that’s $75,000 an acre — and $355,000 for an adjoining home on 1 acre.

Gaul said he and his partners had previously looked at buying the ground as part of their development, but it was too expensive.

Perkins acknowledges that some may think him to be a “little nuts” to spend so much to grow vegetables, when he could have found cheaper ground farther away from town.

But it wouldn’t have been the same, he said. Elsewhere, neighbors couldn’t have seen their food growing right next door. To him, that’s what “makes it cool.”

“It’s a passion. Something I enjoy,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have a good career and so I can buy some land and do this.”

Affinity for farming

Perkins was born in Toledo, Ohio, and from the age of 10 grew up in Loveland, Colo. His mom worked in banking and his father in construction, but his great-grandparents, on both sides, had farms and as a youngster he helped plant crops.

“We always had family gardens and my mom canned our baby food,” he said.

One of Perkins’ first jobs was in a King Soopers grocery store, a Colorado chain owned by Kroger, one of the nation’s largest food retailers. He worked in produce and stayed with the company during and after college. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in restaurant and resort management at Colorado State University in 2000.

Perkins ascended in the Kroger corporation and in 2005 was assigned to Wenatchee as the company’s national buyer of apples, pears and cherries.

Chelan Fresh Marketing was a client he bought fruit from and in 2010, the company recruited him to join its domestic sales desk.

“I love produce. I’ve always loved and missed the retail side of it, working with the consumer. So this kind of fits in with that,” he said of his small farm.

He gets that direct contact with consumers by selling about 95 percent of what he grows right out of the field in a temporary stand he puts up and takes down each season. The rest of his crop is sold to other produce stands in the area.

“I have a vision of having a fruit stand and sustainable small farm. Growing unique varieties that taste good. Not necessarily high-yielding but good quality and flavor,” Perkins said.

He realizes he’s a bit of an anomaly — someone who works for and believes in corporate agriculture but also works in and believes in small farming and the local food movement.

“I like the idea of supporting the local community in general and bringing the community closer together,” he said. “The farm becomes part of the community and helps build a sense of community.

“A lot of people thank us for being here because it’s fun for the family. It’s outside. People come and spend hours. People come from Seattle and buy stuff. They say they like the flavor of the fruits and vegetables from this area.”

But his goal isn’t to create solely a tourist destination, but to be a part of and serve the local community — a place where people can see their food growing and get to know the people growing it.

The season

The season starts with tilling, discing and ground prep, adding a base layer of fertilizer and making growing beds with plastic mulch and drip tape irrigation. Transplanted tomatoes, peppers and onions are the first to be planted in May.

Strawberries he planted last year will produce their first crop this year. He grows several varieties of watermelon and cantaloupe, 20 varieties of hard squash, a large variety of summer squash, pumpkins, all sorts of cucumbers, a range of chili peppers, sweet corn, egg plant, tomatillo, onions, basil, cilantro and other crops.

“Half of my customers are Mexican so I have people working here who are bilingual,” he said. “I cater to the whole community.”

He adds entertainment in October to attract even more customers. In addition to the bounce house and apple sling shot, he has a corn maze and petting zoo with miniature ponies, goats, turkeys and chickens.

The only pesticide he uses is to combat worms in his sweet corn. He’s fought aphids with lady bugs and wants to move toward greater use of cover crops to replace fertilizers and keep weeds down.

“Buying seeds is cheaper than buying chemicals,” he said.

His farm is not organic. If it were, he would have to spray more often since organic sprays are “soft,” he said. Neighbors have asked about his sprays but haven’t complained about the noise from his 75-horsepower John Deere tractor.

“They probably get as much noise from Grant Road as they do from my tractor,” he said. “The only complaints have been about dust so we try to make sure not to be doing field work when it’s dry and the wind is blowing hard.”

He bought a corn seeder from Kallstrom Corn in Ephrata, Wash., but plants and harvests everything else by hand, employing up to six people at the season’s peak.

Parking can get crowded on busy weekends in October, but he picks crops inward from South Mary Avenue to make room for parking in the field. Neighbors Howard and Steve Delp allow 20 to 30 cars to park at their place to help out.

“We love having the farm here. He does an excellent job and every year is trying to make improvements like more drip irrigation and less overhead,” said Howard Delp.

“You couldn’t have a nicer fellow for a neighbor and he has a real passion for what he does,” Delp said. “Anything we can do to help him out, we do.”


Sales continue from August through October. He sells melons by the pound and sweet corn by the ear, $6 to $8 per dozen. Mini-pumpkins are $2, larger ones are $12 and giant pumpkins go for $25 to $50 each.

Perkins smiled when asked about profitability.

“We’re not even close to being profitable if you add in the cost of the land,” he said. “A goal is to get annual revenues to service the land debt. I do have a joy for it. I like doing it, but I want it to pay for itself and I think long-term as I build up the retail side it can be very profitable, but it will take a lot of years to get there.”

He won’t make it, he said, on an August through October sales season. He would like to turn his field into a Christmas tree lot in November and December to augment income but hasn’t done so yet.

“I do not have any partners or investors. I put my life savings into the purchase and still have a sizable debt,” he said. “I barely broke even on operations last year even though sales were up 70 percent and have increased each year.”

His advice for others: “Have a good day job. Like anything, you have to be in it because you love doing it.”

Small apple growers disappear as industry grows

GRANDVIEW, Wash. — Concord grapes, part of his family’s farm for 75 years, grow on one side of his driveway, but on the other they’ve been replaced with a year-old planting of the new state apple, Cosmic Crisp, which Frank Lyall sees as an investment in the future.

“The Concords go to Welch’s. They’re hardly a high value crop anymore. People are taking them out,” says Lyall, 60, who farms in the Lower Yakima Valley, where in 1915 his great grandfather began with prunes, hay and cattle.

There was a time when the Lyalls’ operation, which now includes 450 acres near Grandview and Mattawa, would have been considered large. Today, it’s small, and like so many other small growers in Central Washington, Lyall looks at the mounting pressures that have knocked some of them out of business and wonders how long they will survive.

There’s the shortage of labor and its increasing cost. The cost of mechanization. The growth of government regulations. Then there’s the cost of replanting with new apple varieties, usually around $30,000 per acre. Combined, they make the viability of small-scale tree fruit farms daunting.

Orchards shrink

The numbers are equally daunting. In 1925, 46,240 Washington farms grew apples. By 2012, only 2,839 remained, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Lyall, who is president of the Yakima County Farm Bureau, believes some of the region’s large tree fruit companies, which grow, pack and sell their own fruit in addition to fruit from small independent growers like himself, would be just as happy if more small growers disappeared.

Some people share that view. Others dispute it.

“It’s been said that yesterday’s 60-acre grower is today’s 600-acre grower and tomorrow’s 6,000-acre grower,” Lyall said.

Ever-thinning profit margins contribute to 4.3 percent fewer principal farm operators in the U.S. between the last two U.S. agricultural censuses of 2007 and 2012. The shrinkage was greater for Washington apple growers, whose ranks dropped 7 percent during that time.

“It’s remarkable to me how many farmers have hundreds of acres or smaller and are going concerns but don’t seem to have anyone in their families who want to take over when they retire,” he said. He doesn’t plan to retire. His brother, Charles Lyall, runs the farm in Mattawa. His nephew, Jim Lyall, works with him in Grandview.

Some 120 miles to the north in East Wenatchee, Susan Droz Rankin, 71, and her brother Paul Marker, 68, sold their small orchards, totaling about 16 acres, a few months ago because they wanted to retire, no one in their families wanted to farm and regulations, costs and a shortage of labor continued to erode profits.

“In 2005, we had people stopping in looking for work. In recent years, no one has. It’s been a real struggle to find people, and we even increased our wages to higher than H-2A (foreign guestworker) piece and hourly rates,” Rankin said.

Food safety paperwork is “overwhelming” and mechanization and variety replacement is too costly, she said. New pesticides that are softer on the environment have to be applied more often, adding more costs, she said.

“Farming used to be a lot of fun. The whole family got out and worked from dawn to dusk and enjoyed it, especially at harvest,” Rankin said. “Now all these issues have taken some of the fun out of it.”

About 135 miles farther north, near the U.S.-Canadian border town of Oroville, Dave Taber, owner-operator of 275 acres of tree fruit, said he has been questioning his survival for years, largely due to less labor availability and higher costs.

“Small growers have been in decline in most commodities. Lack of capital to modernize and the burden of regulations hits them hardest and discourages their children from taking over,” said Desmond O’Rourke, a retired Washington State University agricultural economist.

“There are specialized niches where small growers can shine if they can get the capital. They can’t make it on low-priced mainstream varieties,” he said.

Apple history

A closer look at Census of Agriculture numbers shows 27,150 Washington farms producing apples in 1910, increasing to 35,535 in 1920 and 46,240 in 1925. The Great Depression hit them hard, and many growers went bankrupt. Federal loans eventually helped save the industry.

USDA also recommended the formation of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, which started in Wenatchee in 1941 and tracked fruit prices, which helped growers and packers determine prices.

But the biggest drop was from 35,571 farms in 1950 to 10,318 just four years later.

“The U.S. economy was booming after World War II. It was the only world economic power. A lot of people got out of farming, not just apples, but all farming, to make more money in the cities. It was a huge societal shift,” O’Rourke said.

The 1989 Alar scare — a suspicion that the pre-harvest growth regulator caused cancer — crashed apple sales and prices and caused another multi-year decline in the ranks of growers. So did poor returns in the late 1990s.

“I don’t think small growers ever recovered from the Alar panic. That really shifted the economic model. It ended the industry dominance of the small family farmer and the co-op (grower-owned packing cooperative) model,” Lyall said.

A different era

“It used to be a farm family was a basic unit of labor or production in a tree fruit operation. A man and wife and kids could run 30 to 60 acres and do most of the work themselves, hire help at harvest and make a living. It’s become increasingly difficult to do that,” Lyall said.

“Towns, once prosperous middle class communities on tree fruit, are now less than that. They’re reliant on government assistance programs. There’s a general decline in the social health of communities as we see more crime and social dysfunction. That’s been the tragedy of the whole thing,” he said.

The shift has impacted whole communities, he said.

“It use to be Wenatchee was the Apple Capital of the World and was a very attractive small city on the banks of the Columbia, a desirable place to live,” Lyall said. “I would say the apple capital now is Mattawa, but no one wants to move to Mattawa. It’s a town significantly below average income and socio-economic levels.”

Consolidation of retailers has forced the consolidation of the tree fruit industry and the new model is about a dozen large companies controlling around 80 percent of production and sales. Large companies are better equipped to deal with labor, mechanization and replanting costs and government regulations, but “it’s coming at a large socio-economic cost to the farming communities of Central Washington and it’s a subject no one wants to touch with a 10-foot pole,” Lyall said.

Regulations have always been the bane of small growers because they take the focus away from growing fruit and reduce nimbleness, he said.

Larger retailers favor food safety regulations but aren’t willing to pass increased costs on to consumers, he said.

He credits President Donald Trump with rolling back regulations that, he says, grew the most under presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

It’s also ironic that big companies complain about outside investors driving up land prices even as they partner with them to buy more land and plant more trees to have enough fruit volume for new packing lines, making land unaffordable, causing overproduction and consolidation, he said.

Will small survive?

Will small apple growers someday be gone and a few large companies grow, pack and sell all the fruit?

Lyall says it’s hard to know, and that it depends on what government and large buyers want, since they created the current economic model.

Michael Butler, CEO of Cascadia Capital, a Seattle investment bank, believes most small growers will eventually die out and six to eight large companies will remain. A few small growers will survive if they have a niche product and link up with a large company that can distribute their fruit, he said.

The best model, he said, is the large company growing, packing and selling mostly its own fruit with the remainder from small growers.

“We find a lot of mid-sized companies filling 30 percent of their volume with their own fruit and 70 percent with fruit of small growers. These companies are in the danger zone,” Butler said.

As independent growers go away, those mid-size companies need more fruit and are borrowing to buy land and make or buy orchards, he said.

“The big vertically integrated (grow, pack and sell their own fruit) companies are just as happy if the small growers go away. The mid-sized vertically integrated not so much, as they need to replace the fruit,” Butler said.

Chuck Zeutenhorst, general manager of First Fruits Marketing of Washington in Yakima, said he’s not aware of any large companies that want their small growers gone.

“It’s a competitive industry but there’s a lot of goodwill,” he said.

Companies have wonderful partnerships with independent growers and “there is a general feeling that we want everyone to be profitable,” he said.

First Fruits is the sales arm of Broetje Orchards, of Prescott, and two other companies. Zeutenhorst, 61, grew up on an orchard, and said that years ago growers were the industry kings but now have taken a backseat to marketing. Small growers suffered from the loss of generic domestic promotions when the Washington Apple Commission lost its domestic authority in 2003, he said.

“In the short term, with the level of worldwide apple production coming at us, I think times are coming that could be very difficult. Will the industry be dominated by four to six large companies? I think there’s a chance of that. I don’t want it to happen,” Zeutenhorst said. “In the long term, I think the small grower may make a comeback.”

The industry is becoming saturated with new varieties to be sold domestically while domestic consumption is not increasing and varieties that do well for export are being reduced, he said.

Overall volume is substantially increasing and “at some point something has to give. It reminds me of the federal debt,” he said.

Development costs of new varieties are “incredible” and only large, vertically integrated companies can afford them, he said.

Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association in Yakima, said consolidation is a natural economic trend in any industry as it grows but that small growers won’t totally vanish.

Lots of towns had breweries 60 years ago, he said. Consolidation reduced them to a few big companies and now small craft breweries represent a new variation of small hometown breweries.

“It’s hard to predict what will happen because there are broader economic trends that drive what happens. There’s a lot of pressure to get fruit marketed through fewer channels because large retailers want to deal with fewer suppliers,” DeVaney said.

Consolidation may be disrupted, he said, by Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, increasing fruit sales via the internet.

There are immediate efficiencies to large companies growing their own fruit and it gives them dependable supply, but then they also have tremendous capital tied up in land, which may not be efficient, he said.

“I hear companies talk about the importance of maintaining close relationships with independent growers. A good producer who can produce quality is an asset,” DeVaney said.

But Lyall maintains the consolidation of four industry organizations four years ago to form the Tree Fruit Association “was designed to help small growers go away” because their voice was significantly reduced with the loss of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, on whose board he served.

“If large companies wanted small growers they would have left Growers Clearing House in place because they would have recognized the importance of independent growers having an independent voice in the industry,” he said.

DeVaney replied that consolidation occurred throughout the Clearing House’s existence and the merger of the four organizations was not designed to force small growers out.

“The focus is to provide services to all growers. Five of 13 board seats are set aside for independent growers and there are more growers than packers,” DeVaney said. “We try our best to represent all and there is more that unites us in common interests than divides us.”

New tractor company targets small farm market

The manufacturer of a new, small tractor patterned after the Allis-Chalmers Model G of old is targeted at the small-scale farm market.

Horace Clemmons, a partner in CleBer LLC making the Oggun tractor in Fyffe, Ala., says he left IBM in 1983 and started a software company for computerized cash registers that used non-proprietary software.

Clemmons and his business partner, Saul Berenthal, a Cuban-born software entrepreneur, decided to do the same thing with small tractors after U.S. relations with Cuba eased in 2014.

The government there returned land in roughly 40-acre tracts to 300,000 family farms. Clemmons and Berenthal decided the best help would be affordable farm equipment.

They liked the open, simple design of the Allis-Chalmers Model G, of which 29,976 were built from 1948 to 1955 some 40 miles away from Fyffe in Gadsden, Ala.

With rear engines, drivers could see the ground ahead of them, and they were excellent for close cultivation in row crops. Their demise coincided with the growth of farms as bigger tractors were needed on bigger farms, Clemmons said.

The Oggun coincides with the local food movement, where regional farming can be applied globally and solve global food supply issues that will grow as the world’s population does, he said.

“We know we will be successful manufacturing tractors, but it’s not about that but changing the entire business model,” Clemmons said.

He envisions the Oggun, named for the god of metal works in the Santeria religion in Cuba, as a starting point for other countries manufacturing as much of their own farm equipment as possible to help their economies.

The Oggun is built with off-the-shelf non-proprietary components for easy parts replacement. The 19-horsepower gas model sells for $12,500, weighs 1,720 pounds, is 123 inches long and has a ground clearance of 17 inches. A diesel version, when available, will be $15,500.

Production started in December. Since January CleBer has sold 60 tractors in 18 states, six countries and to eight land-grant universities, Clemmons said.

Seven have been sold to small farmers in Oregon and Washington, and the company donated a prototype to Oregon State University, said Locky Catron, a CleBer partner.

Most have been sold in Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New England because they have the most small farms, Clemmons said.