How produce safety rule impacts small farms

Blueberry pickers had come to glean the berries left over after harvest and donate them to hungry families in Salem, Ore.

Pat Zurbrugg, owner of Zurbrugg Blueberries, stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged as he watched the gleaners.

“I’m glad to donate my berries to people in need,” he said. “But there wasn’t always so much excess until I switched to U-pick.”

Zurbrugg changed to U-pick because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s new produce safety rule made it difficult for him to continue processing his berries.

“For a busy small farm like mine, it’s very expensive and time-consuming to follow the rule,” said Zurbrugg.

The produce safety rule, part of the FDA’s Food and Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), was created to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness.

The rule gives the government more oversight over farms — inspecting irrigation water for dangerous bacteria, making sure workers wash their hands and protecting against animal droppings, for example.

Joy Waite-Cusic, food safety researcher at Oregon State University, said most farmers were already following safety practices, but FDA made the rule in response to outbreaks linked to fresh foods.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48,0000 people in the U.S. — one in six — get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, and 3,000 die annually.

Much of that illness can be attributed to improper handling at the consumer and retail level, but some can be traced back to the farm. According to the National Institutes of Health, outbreaks linked to fresh produce were the leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. in 2016.

The rule, though intended to protect consumers, has made it harder for some farms to stay in business.

Oregon Blueberry Commission Administrator  Bryan Ostlund said the rule has both positive and negative sides. It’s positive, Ostlund said, because it improves safety education and practices. “We need farms to understand food safety better, and this rule helps with that,” he said.

But Ostlund said the rule costs farmers time and money. Farmers must keep records, train employees and get inspections. Although the FDA does not charge for standard inspections, some farms need to buy new equipment or hire staff for record-keeping.

“It’s a good rule in many ways, but no one wants more bureaucracy,” said Ostlund. “It’s a march forward, but also a fall back. How does a small-scale farm keep up administratively? How do farmers survive?”

According to Waite-Cusic of OSU, some farms are exempt — such as those with average produce sales of less than $25,000 annually. But for farms big enough to fall under the rule yet small enough that income is tight, the rule creates a burden.

“Those farms are in a financial pinch,” said Waite-Cusic. “They’re impacted the most. They typically run a very lean operation, and they may not be able to afford a record-keeper or food safety staffer. So some are going out of business.”

But not every farmer dislikes the rule.

Greg Bennett, owner of Northwest Onion Co. in Brooks, Ore. said the rule is worth the extra work.

“There’s more training and accountability,” he said. “We’re protecting consumers better. We’ve got more peace of mind that people won’t get sick. The rule protects us, too. If we get into a food recall, we have the documentation behind us to back up our story. But it’s more work. We have a lot more dividers in our notebooks now.”

Waite-Cusic said resources are available to help farms comply with the rule without hurting their businesses. Farmers can request free consultations — called on-farm readiness reviews — with Oregon Department of Agriculture and OSU Extension staff.

Waite-Cusic said resources are under-utilized, and grant money to support the consultations may run out in 2020.

“This is one of the only ways you’ll ever get your tax dollars back,” she said, and laughed. “I want to keep farms in business and keep people from getting sick — a win-win.”

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.

UI conference brings heritage orchard efforts together

A University of Idaho conference will bring together experts from around the region in an effort to revive heritage fruit varieties.

The Heritage Orchard Conference will begin at 9 a.m. May 31 at the university’s Sandpoint Organic Agriculture Center.

Many institutions in the Northwest have a small orchard of heritage fruit, said Kyle Nagy, superintendent and orchard operations manager at the center.

“Everybody seems to be doing something a little bit different, with different goals,” Nagy said. “We’re looking to … see what we can all collaborate on in the future.”

The university received the 66-acre center as a donation in 2018.

“We’re kind of looking for how we can help with other programs and collaborate with goals they have already set out,” Nagy said.

The agenda includes presentations from the Lost Apple Project, the Boundary County Orchard Restoration Project, the Wyoming Apple Project and the Montana Heritage Orchard Program.

Demand for heritage and heirloom apple varieties has increased in recent years, largely driven by a growing interest in hard cider, Nagy said. Many hard ciders need a cider-specific variety, most of which are heritage fruits, he said.

“A lot of these old varieties were bred in a time when they were really looking for hard cider varieties,” he said. “Back when potable water was maybe something that was a little harder to come by, a lot of people were drinking cider as their hydration. Being fermented like that, it’s going to be safer for everybody to drink.”

Nagy estimates the conference will have about 75 participants.

The conference may move to other locations in future years, Nagy said.

Nagy hopes to spread the word about heritage varieties to home orchardists and home gardeners, beyond the few modern cultivars available to them.

“There’s just so many neat apples out there that people have never heard of,” he said.

OSU hosts organic strawberry management event

Oregon State University Extension Service will host a hands-on organic strawberry workshop May 10 at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center.

“This hands-on workshop will teach you about organic methods for extending your season — both early and late — with transplant production and low tunnels, how to use fertigation for adequate soil fertility and plant nutrition, organic pest management and more,” according to an OSU flyer about the event.

The workshop will be conducted from 1 to 4 p.m. The research center is at 15210 NE Miley Rd,  Aurora.

The event is part of OSU’s Mid-Willamette Valley Small Farms & Berry Initiative. Registration is $10. For more information, or to register, go to the event’s website.

Record year makes Oregon top blueberry producer

For the first time in several years, Oregon reigns as the nation’s leading producer of blueberries, reclaiming a top spot the state lost to Washington several years back.

“I was surprised,” said Jeff Malensky, chair of the Oregon Blueberry Commission, regarding Oregon’s resurgence to the top spot. “Our belief was Oregon and Washington had similar seasons, and so with the previous year being what it was, where Washington was ahead of Oregon, 2018 numbers should have followed accordingly.”

According to recently released preliminary crop reports, Oregon production hit 131 million pounds in 2018, far and away a record yield for the state, whereas Washington’s production came in at 127 million pounds.In 2017, Oregon produced 107 million pounds of blueberries, compared to Washington’s 116 million pounds, which topped the nation that year.

In 2016, Oregon produced 116 million pounds of blueberries, the previous record. That year, Washington came in at 120 million pounds.

More significant than who is on top in any one year, according to Malensky, is the sheer increase in volume produced by the Pacific Northwest and what that means to an industry trying to cope with unprecedented volumes.

In the Northwest alone, which includes British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, volume increased to 412 million pounds in 2018, up from 358 million in 2017, continuing what has been a steady increase in production for the past 20 years.

“It doesn’t matter if we are ahead of Washington by a couple of million pounds, or if they are ahead of us. Between us and British Columbia, we are what is going to drive the processed and the fresh industry, as well,” Malensky said. “And with that comes the responsibility of developing markets.

“We need to move that needle up. We need to continue accessing markets and looking for new ways to use blueberries, including frozen, fresh, dried and other applications,” Malensky said. “There is a lot of fruit out there, and it is only going to increase.”

On the plus side, Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Blueberry Commission, said that movement has been strong.

“The positive point about 2018 is that Oregon’s fresh sales stayed not just strong, but actually grew a bit,” Ostlund said. “It is not like we are producing all of this fruit and it is going right into the freezer. Fresh markets stayed strong. It is consumed, and it is off the market, and it didn’t overly burden the freezer component, which is awesome.”

About 45 percent of Oregon’s 2018 blueberry production, or 59.6 million pounds, went into the fresh market, with the remainder entering the processed market.

Other top producing states in 2018, according to preliminary numbers from the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, include Michigan, which produced 66 million pounds of blueberries; California, which produced 58 million pounds; and Georgia, which produced 50 million.

Overall, U.S. blueberry production, counting highbush and lowbush varieties, which are produced primarily in Maine, came in at around 650 million pounds in 2018, up from 480 million in 2017.

Malensky said he expects volumes to increase in coming years, particularly given that several states had down years in 2018 because of weather.

“Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia, New Jersey all were down,” he said. “All of those areas could have done 10, 20, 30 percent more than what they did.”

Excessive heat last summer in Eastern Washington, where most of Washington’s blueberry production is concentrated, probably played a significant factor in Oregon’s resurgence to the top spot, said Doug Krahmer of Berries Northwest in St. Paul, Ore.

“We had some of those issues, but they had more up there,” Krahmer said. “Where the (Willamette) Valley was hot and dry, they were hotter and dry.”

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.

Home Orchard Society to host ‘All About Fruit Show’

Aspiring orchardists can learn more about tree fruits at the All About Fruit Show.

Sponsored by the Home Orchard Society, the show offers an opportunity to learn more about the many varieties of fruits that grow in the region, including apples, pears, quince, grapes and kiwis.

The show will be 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 20-21, at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds, 694 NE Fourth Ave., Canby, Ore.
Also on hand will be a fruit identification team to help identify unknown types of fruit.
Custom-grafted fruit trees will also be for sale.

Admission is $7 per person or $12 per family (members pay $5 each or $10 for families). People who join the orchard society at the door will be admitted free.

For more information go to the society’s website.

UI Parma Fruit Field Day showcases research

Art and Setsuko Church, who are seeking new varieties for the small-scale fruit operation they run in Weiser, Idaho, had plenty to look at Sept. 7 during the Fruit Field Day the University of Idaho hosted at its pomology orchard and vineyard north of the Parma Research and Extension Center.

Hundreds of people turn out each year at the event to learn about new pomology practices and to sample that many fruits.

Art Church said he’s interested in adding just about any stone fruit that grows well in southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon, but especially new cultivars. He’s also interested in pistachios.

He is encouraged by what he has seen of this year’s harvest, now in the late stages. He and Setsuko as of early September continued to harvest melons and had completed stone-fruit harvest.

“It has been a very good year,” Art Church said. Peaches, nectarines and melons look good. Compared to last year, they’re bigger and lack winter damage.

Jerry Henggeler of Henggeler Packing Co. in Fruitland, Idaho, said there was some excess heat this year, “but for the most part, we had very food volume and very good-quality crops.”

Freezes this year were mostly minor, said Henggeler, past president of the Idaho-Oregon Fruit & Vegetable Association.

“We were hit early in apricot and cherry crops,” he said. Those first-blooming crops ended up short in volume, but all others this season fared well — including peaches (many varieties), plums, pears, apples and nectarines.

Harvest weather has been good so far, without inclement days to slow work, Henggeler said.

A shortage of labor is becoming a serious problem, he said. Mechanization is growing in orchards and packing plants.

Essie Fallahi, UI pomology program director, said horticulture is increasingly important as the world’s population grows.

Scientists, through their own work and in collaboration with peers in different areas, aim to help growers produce high-quality food in greater volumes at a lower labor cost, he said.

High-density orchards are producing larger fruit of better quality, and using less land and water, due in part to UI-pioneered irrigation advances that apply precise amounts of water a tree needs, Fallahi said. Onions, hops and other crops also are thriving with help from this system, which is efficient and cuts chemical leaching into groundwater.

Fruit Field Day showcased current research and production advancements; work on the best rootstocks for apples, peaches and nectarines most suitable for the region; tree and fruit irrigation, nutrition and pest management; orchard and canopy research; and alternative crops such as quince, almond, walnut, jujube and haskap.

Fifth-grade students at Parma Middle School attended.

“It’s a good introduction for the kids to the resources we have,” math teacher Brian Hutton said.

The Idaho town of more than 2,000 is home to many farms and agricultural businesses.

Sisters nurture legacy at family orchard

FILER, Idaho — Nestled alongside the Snake River just west of Twin Falls, Kelley’s Canyon Orchard has been a draw for generations of fruit lovers.

The orchard is in its 110th fruit-crop season, and locals with bushel baskets knew their way to the U-pick rows of peach trees on Sunday afternoon. Others, from as far away as Boise, chose freshly picked produce from the farm stand welcoming visitors to the orchard.

The operation has a rich history from its beginnings in 1906 to its current, fourth-generation owners — sisters Robin and Gretchen. Although married, the women still go by the family name, Robin Kelley Rausch said.

While the operation has had small blips of large distribution, its focus has always been direct sales to customers, she said.

It’s a business model that harkens back to her great grandfather, John Steele Gourley, who planted the first fruit trees at the orchard in 1906. His father, a preacher, had come to the Magic Valley from Pennsylvania to help with the development of the First Presbyterian Church of Twin Falls.

Gourley recognized the climate in the Snake River Canyon was ideal for cultivating stone fruit and obtained land and water rights there under the Carey Act. He established his orchard on 50 acres along the banks of the Snake and planted melons between the trees to make a little money while the trees were maturing.

For years, he would haul his produce to Twin Falls by horse and wagon, selling to houses up and down neighborhood alleys, Kelley said.

Love for the orchard was carried down to his daughter, Mary Anne Gourley Kelley, and grandson, Richard Kelley — father of Robin and Gretchen.

The business ran under the Gourley name until Richard took over in the late 1970s and expanded the operation. After Richard’s death in 2014, Robin and Gretchen took the reins.

“Some of the things I love the best are the multiple-generation experiences. It’s a rite of passage,” she said, not just for her own family, which is bringing in the fifth generation to the orchard, but also for the customers who have been coming to the orchard for generations. People who brought their children to the orchard are now bringing their grandchildren.

It’s a connection of food and family. Kelley’s is part of other families’ traditions, she said.

“It’s always been a place for people to come and enjoy. We really pride ourselves on a sense of place,” she said.

But it isn’t an easy business. The orchard lost 85 percent of its cherry crop this year due to a late freeze this spring. The freeze and a hail storm took half of the peaches and plums and decimated the nectarines. Apple production is also down due to a bad bud set last fall.

“The orchard business is maybe a four-month revenue stream, maybe, if everything goes well,” she said.

But she and her sister, who both also have careers outside the orchard business, are dedicated to making the orchard thrive. They are putting all the income from the orchard back into the business, and they’ve opened their grandmother’s house on the property as an Airbnb destination to bring in more revenue and provide visitors with a unique experience, she said.

“There is a love for the place and the legacy of tradition and a responsibility to family,” she said.

The orchard is a shared story between the family and customers, old and new, she said.

“The people at the stand might love our peaches, but they’re more buying our story. It’s an experience — and we do grow really good fruit,” she said.

“We work really hard and value the people who work for and with us. And we really appreciate the community support. We cannot thrive or survive without community support,” she said.

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.