Small, urban cherry orchard nears its last harvest

EAST WENATCHEE, Wash. — The 20th harvest season at one of the smallest and most urban U-pick cherry orchards in the area is done, and its owner says it may be the last.

“I’ve been saying it for 10 years, but this year or next year is probably my last,” says Rick Gifford, owner of R&J Cherries with his wife, Janet.

“I’m doing all this work and not making any money,” he said. “There’s other things I could be doing, like having fun.”

He broke even this year for the first time in several years, making about $6,000 to cover insurance, irrigation, chemicals and taxes.

“It’s frustrating when you have a light (fruit) set. Last year we had less than a ton of cherries and this year only double that,” he said. “One year I had 7 to 8 tons and couldn’t sell them. Most of them sat on the trees and dropped to the ground. Everyone had so many cherries that you couldn’t give them away.”

It’s been a labor of love.

Gifford enjoys being outside. He enjoys working in the trees. But at 59, the work isn’t as enjoyable as it once was.

The orchard is just 2 acres. It isn’t large enough to warrant hiring help so he does all the work. Packing sheds generally don’t want to buy fruit from any orchards under 5 or 10 acres, he says, so he sells U-pick.

He used to haul cherries to roadside stands as far away as Spokane, but when owners of stands reneged on the price it wasn’t worth the hassle.

Besides being small, the orchard may be the last one so close to the heart of town. It’s just a quarter mile up Third and Fourth streets Southeast from the busyness of Costco and four auto dealerships. It’s just across the street from the city limits.

When the Giffords bought it in 1999, orchards bordered it on three sides. Now they’re all gone.

“I was told it was one of the first orchards planted in East Wenatchee and originally had apricots and apples,” he said. He thinks it’s about 100 years old.

It’s mostly Rainier cherries with 12 Bing trees and 12 pie cherry trees.

“We bought it to cut the trees down and build a house and have our horses, but we found our dream home a couple miles away and ended up stuck with a cherry orchard,” Gifford said.

He didn’t mind.

Pruning, spraying, mowing and picking were all nice diversions from his job as a metallurgist at KB Alloys, now AMG Aluminum. He retired in 2012 to manage his rental properties and run the cherry orchard.

He keeps spray drift from being an issue by using a hand sprayer instead of a tractor-drawn airblast sprayer to control cherry fruit flies and aphids.

Some residents and the local fire department have complained when he burns clippings from winter pruning, but the state Department of Ecology backs him up on his agricultural right to burn, he says.

A few other small cherry orchards remain on the northern edge of town. Some of them are large enough to sell to packing sheds, and in good years the owners can make decent supplemental income to their regular jobs.

Gifford figures even for them it’s getting harder to do.