Washington’s small and mid-sized apple producers must adapt to changing trends

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CHELAN, Wash. – On a rainy day in the hills above Lake Chelan, Dave Robison is checking on his blossoming apple trees.

Days earlier he had sprayed the trees across his 120-acre orchard to cull some blossoms, leaving only the hardiest.

It’s a job Robison remembers doing with his dad. Before that, it was a job his grandfather first started doing in the Chelan area in the late 1950s. Now, it’s a task he carries out with his 27-year-old son.

But midsize apple orchards like the Robisons’ are disappearing.

About a decade ago, there were 4,000 independent apple growers in Washington. Today there’s 1,450, according to Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission.

That trend isn’t unique to apple growers.

Across the state, midsize farms are being stamped out by economic and social pressure. The apple industry, the state’s top crop, highlights some of the reasons for an increasingly consolidated industry.

“I know more than one farmer who is still farming real hard and they’re 80 years old,” Robison said. “There are too many parts of it that are outside our control.”

“You can be the best farmer in the world and still go broke,” he said.

The industry and the culture

In early May, thousands of people lined the streets of downtown Wenatchee to watch the Stemilt Growers 98th Washington State Apple Blossom Festival Grand Parade.

A pink and silver, tinsel-covered, Apple-shaped structure sat on the lead float. Two teenagers, the apple blossom queen and princess, waved as spectators clapped.

“Someone in your world is involved in the apple industry. That’s how it is here,” said Darci Christoferson. “You’re somehow committed to the apple industry.”

Christoferson is the Apple Blossom Festival organizer and a former queen.

Christoferson said 100,000 people will attend the 11-day festival, with its parade, car show and other events, designed to celebrate the blossoming of the state’s dominant agricultural crop.

Outlying towns create their own floats. The parade, which lasted about an hour and a half, featured high school marching bands, victorious high school sports teams and 4-H clubs.

“I always say Apple Blossom is kind of a family reunion,” Christoferson said.

Wenatchee’s moniker? Apple Capital of the World.

A day prior to the parade, Bob Bossen drove along the outskirts of Wenatchee. Stopping his truck in the middle of the road, he pointed toward a half-built subdivision. The sprouting houses are being built on former orchard land.

“Field men are probably the worst drivers in the world, because we’re always gawking at orchards,” he said.

But more and more, what he’s pointing at isn’t an orchard – it’s a housing development.

Bossen has been a horticulturist for 45 years. His grandfather owned apple orchards, as did his father. But Bossen sold his land – about 15 acres – to a larger grower when his children weren’t interested in continuing the business.

Now he works for the Northern Fruit Company, helping to keep the orchards healthy. The industry has changed, he said. Fewer and fewer young people are interested in getting into an increasingly competitive and difficult business.

“There has been a lot of consolidation in our industry,” said Fryhover, of the commission. “It is continuing to happen and I think you see that in all agriculture.”

Higher yields, better technology, fewer farmers

Data from the United States Department of Agriculture’s census shows a decrease in midsize farms in Washington. In 1997, there were 8,446 farms between 50 and 219 acres in size.

In 2012, there were 7,276 farms that size.

It’s the same story across the nation. According to a 2014 article by Daniel Sumner, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis, the size of commercial farms has more than doubled in the last 20 years.

“Commercial agriculture in the United States is comprised of several hundred thousand farms, and these farms continue to become larger and fewer,” Sumner writes in the conclusion of the article.

Apple farmer Dave Robison stands amid a new trellis system designed to focus all the trees energy into producing fruit form maximum yield on Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Chelan, Wash. The new trellis are also spaced wide enough to fit a new platform picking system. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Apple farmer Dave Robison stands amid a new trellis system designed to focus all the trees energy into producing fruit form maximum yield on Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Chelan, Wash. The new trellis are also spaced wide enough to fit a new platform picking system. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The Washington apple industry is no different. In the past 10 years, the number of independent growers has dropped from 4,000 to 1,450, a 63 percent decrease even though the overall acreage is about the same.

Dave Robison said that decrease is due to the unique nature of the apple business. On average, apple farmers might get 40 bins per acre, while some growers are producing more and others produce less.

“You take wheat, everybody basically produces the same,” Robison said. “But in tree fruit some guys can be making three or four times more than the others.”

Part of what makes the increased productivity possible is new technology and orchard planting systems. However, implementing those systems can be cost prohibitive for small operations.

Once those systems are in place and orchardists become more efficient, the gap widens between large and small.

“It’s never been like it is right now, never,” Robison said.

Karina Gallardo, a professor at Washington State who studies the economics of tree fruit, said several factors are leading to consolidation.

The first, she said, is the rising costs of starting an orchard or breaking into the business.

There’s also the time element: It can take a long time for farmers to get paid for their crop.

She’s also seen an increase in the cost of storing, packing, shipping and marketing fruit. And at the end of the tree-to-table process, it is difficult for midsize farmers to negotiate with consolidated retailing.

Gallardo hasn’t studied the issue of consolidation. Instead, she relies on what she has been told and observed.

Robison also attributes the consolidation to increasing government regulations.

“It’s just mind-boggling the regulations that come up. When a big company comes across a new regulation, if they have to, they can hire somebody who can (navigate) it,” Robison said. “But as small farmers, we just have to deal with it all.”

Mark Powers, the president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, said increased oversight usually means increased costs.

“All of that drives costs,” he said. “If you’re a small grower, it’s very difficult to pay for the expertise, basically the full-time attention that is required to be in compliance to all of these requirements.”

Fryhover is quick to point out that Washington’s apple industry remains dominated by family-owned enterprises, from the orchards to the packing plants. However, those family operations are becoming large businesses.

“These people have been around a long time and they are vertically integrated,” he said.

When one family company owns the orchards, packing plant, and distribution and sales organization, they can absorb costs more easily, Robison said. That increases the speed with which the industry evolves.

When considering his son’s future as a farmer, Robison is realistic.

“I think there is a 50-50 chance (he’ll retire as a farmer),” he said. “We’ve talked about that.”

till a big player

Fryhover understands why people might think the apple industry had lost some of its luster. With fewer individual farmers, the direct, daily impact of the business might be lost on some.

“When you think of Washington, you think of Boeing and Microsoft and Amazon,” he said.

And although technology and manufacturing jobs may dominate the west side of the state, he said the apple industry continues to play a vital role in the state’s economy.

In 2015, the state’s apple industry was worth $2.04 billion. That’s 22 percent of the state’s total agricultural value, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Nationally, the 2015 crop represented 59.9 percent of the country’s apple production.

Ceasar Lopez works in one of Phyllis Gleasman's orchards to plant new apple trees on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Manson, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Ceasar Lopez works in one of Phyllis Gleasman’s orchards to plant new apple trees on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Manson, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A profit puzzle piece

Across the lake from Robison’s home near the small town of Manson, Phylis Gleasman has been growing apples since 1981. That’s when she moved with her husband back to the Chelan area and jumped into the apple business. Her husband died in 2005, and Gleasman farms her 60 or so acres with the help of her son, who also works as a school teacher.

Her orchards are high in the hills above the long, narrow lake, right at the edge of where apples can grow, she said. Nowadays those hills are increasingly dotted with housing developments.

“As the rural area disappears and becomes more urban, there are challenges,” she said.

Neighbors expect rural peace and quiet, and are unhappy when farm machinery makes noise, she said. One neighbor recently sued her, claiming that when she sprayed her orchards, the chemicals drifted onto their property. The lawsuit is ongoing, but to appease them, she built a 30-foot-tall barrier between the orchard and their property.

When Gleasman started farming, she was unusual – one of the few people who “didn’t inherit” a family business, she said.

“We started from scratch,” she said.

Things have changed since then. With the increased price and complexity of the apple business, Gleasman isn’t sure she could start out in the same manner today.

But she prides herself on adapting to those changes.

“You can’t look at this (like it’s) 20 years ago,” she said. “You have to look at this strictly as a business. You can’t just go out there and sit on a tractor with a piece of straw in your mouth.”

Now she’s constantly looking ahead, figuring out ways she can make her business more efficient, while simultaneously planting the kinds of apples consumers want. It’s a tricky balancing act.

When Gleasman and Robison started farming, the Washington apple industry was dominated by one variety, Red Delicious. Consumers’ tastes changed, however, fueled by the introduction of new, tastier varieties: Gala, Fuji, and Honeycrisp, to name only a few.

The varieties are good for discerning consumers, but makes the farmers’ jobs harder. Instead of relying on one, homogeneous crop, they have to plant multiple varieties, hoping that one or two will be popular when they start producing.

Trees themselves have to be ordered three years in advance. And once planted, they take about five years to reach full yield, Gleasman said.

“You just hope that dart hits the target, that you’re getting something profitable,” she said.

In mid-May, Gleasman is in the middle of planting a new section of orchard. She’s bought Red Delicious trees, but plans to graft the more profitable Sugar Bee apples onto the Red Delicious root stalk.

In addition to planting new varieties, farmers are also planting narrower rows to accommodate shorter, denser orchards. In the past there would be 300 to 400 apple trees per acre. Now, with changes in technology and horticulture, farmers can get 1,500 to 2,000 trees per acre, Fryhover said. And those trees are shorter, with fruit hanging just 8 feet off the ground.

Already, many orchards are harvesting fruit using motorized platforms, removing the need for tall and dangerous ladders.

The next big thing? Automated harvest. The technology is still in development, but many orchardists hope it will have widespread use in Washington within 10 years. Automating harvest would remove one of the industry’s biggest and most persistent challenges – labor costs.

“Yes, there is a lot of interest in it (automation),” Fryhover said. “The labor is just the tough, tough part.”

But, as with all innovations in the industry, automated harvest will cost money and take time to implement. For a robot to accurately and efficiently pick fruit, the orchard has to be uniform.

“So you have to have the orchard structure first when you talk about automation,” Fryhover said. “And that’s not cheap. You’re talking about $40,000 to $50,000 an acre to plant an orchard like this.”

‘If we play our cards right’

Gleasman’s operation is also a family affair. Her son, the school teacher, works nights, weekends and summers.

Touring her orchards, she greets her grandson, Luke Gleasman, who is driving a tractor while Jose Perez places trees in the furrowed earth. Lake Chelan glimmers in the distance.

“Hey, big buddy,” Gleasman says to Luke, who plays football at Carrol College in Montana and is home visiting for a few weeks.

Gleasman doesn’t worry much about the future. She thinks that as long as she continues to adapt and respond, there is a way for midsize farms to succeed.

“We are constantly reinvesting in our orchard to make sure it is farmed right and it has quality diversification,” she said.

And while Robison is more concerned than Gleasman, he also thinks there is a future.

It just won’t be easy.

“I know that us small farmers, if we play our cards right, there is always going to be room for us,” he said. “We can micromanage. We don’t have the money to make changes real fast, but we can micromanage what we have.”