The Nicholson Orchard’s story goes back almost one hundred years. Clearing land using a team of horses, raising a cow for milk and butter, keeping a flock of chickens for eggs and meat, common practices for my grandfather and his neighbors.
Pioneers to the Wenatchee Valley came to mine gold, harvest timber and eventually to plant and cultivate what would become one of the most famous apple and pear, growing region in the world. Because of the remoteness of the Wenatchee Valley, one hundred miles from Seattle, over some very curvy and dangerous mountain passes, apples and pears were shipped by rail cars, cooled with blocks of ice.
My grandfather used a team of horses to pull sled loads of freshly picked apples from the orchard to the packing shed. The timber mill cut local pine trees into half-inch planks that were made into bushel sized apple boxes. While in high school my father and others worked in the box mill, hammering nails, to make apple boxes. Most of the grower’s wives worked seasonally in the packing sheds, sorting, grading, and packing fruit into pine wood boxes bound for markets on the west coast and eventually to the east coast.
The packing shed is where the fruit is received, graded, packed and stored until it is sold. Growers pool their money, assess a fee on themselves based on the number of boxes they grow, in order to build cold storage buildings, packing lines, and pay someone to sell their fruit.
The co-operative my grandfather helped to found was called Peshastin Fruit Growers Association. That grower co-operative has merged with other grower owned co-operatives and is now called Blue Bird, Inc. Peshastin Fruit’s original logo, featured a blue bird on every box label.
Our story evolves when sons and daughters of the original pioneer families return from World War II. Now called the “Greatest Generation”, men and women that fought in World War II returned to the Wenatchee Valley to develop, expand and grow Washington State’s tree fruit industry.
The tree fruit industry in Washington State covers an area from the Columbia River on the Washington Oregon boarder north to the Canadian boarder. In spite of the large size of Washington’s tree fruit industry most growers are still small family farms. These family farms combined produce close to 100 million boxes of apples, 33 million boxes of pears, 115,000 tons of fresh cherries, followed by peaches, apricots and nectarines.
My wife Nancy and two of our children returned to the upper Wenatchee Valley, in 1987. Our intention was to become full time fruit growers with hopes of raising our children in a rural small town setting.
We took over as third generation growers on our orchard in an era when tree fruit prices were falling below the grower’s break-even point. After several years of falling prices some growers gave up, sold their orchards and left their land.
In the winter of 2001 large retail grocery chains started advertising that they now had fresh picked apples and pears available that were imported from Argentina and other southern hemisphere countries. Local growers were setting on warehouses full of good quality fruit that was priced below their growing cost.
Local family growers decided that they’d had enough. They set a date and a time and notified the media that there was going to be a huge tractor rally in the streets of downtown Wenatchee (and later in Seattle). Hundreds of growers showed up, the precession of tractors chose a route that included the parking lots of the large retail grocers that had run the T.V. ad. Supporters stood on the side- walks and cheered, while others openly wept. Prices back to the farm remained low, but the T.V. ads were pulled. Many markets put up signs in their produce departments showing which products were locally grown.
Seeing our livelihood and our ability to continue farming threatened by forces we couldn’t influence or control we started looking for alternative ways to sell our fruit.
As children my sister and I used to sell apples on highway 97 next to our orchard. I made enough one fall to afford my first transistor radio. One fall day we loaded up our old farm truck with boxes of fruit, put up some home made signs and parked next to the highway. Fifteen years later we have a fruit stand that is open from June until the end of October. We feature our own fruit and fruit from some of our neighbors plus some of our own certified organic fruit and preserves.
Yes, I said Organic!
One of the positive things about having a fruit stand is the opportunity to talk directly with your consumers. They’ve told us a number of things. One is that they are concerned about where their food comes from.
They want to know that the food they are feeding their children is safe, pesticide free, and nutritionally great. They want to know they are buying from a producer that treats their workers with respect, and that workers are paid a reasonable wage. They are also willing to pay a reasonable price to the grower to assure that the grower can continue to farm.
Hearing what consumers want has helped us transition our crops to certified organic production. We hope to continue to add new delicious products at our fruit stand and to make these products available to CSA’s through out the state.
If this ventures turns out to be successful we hope to see a fourth generation on Nicholson’s on the land producing great fruit for many years to come.