Jim Cook and Wynne Weinreb say a red clover cover crop
helps create a lush environment in the orchard.
Jim Cook believes in biological pest control to the point that he welcomes rattlesnakes and coyotes in his orchard. Rodents are never a problem. Nor are aphids, whose predators find shelter in the cover crop of red clover and flowering wild plants.
Cook stumbled across the site of the orchard a decade ago while hiking. He noticed a "For Sale" sign on a long, narrow stretch of virgin ground on the northern edge of Howard Flats near Chelan, overlooking the Columbia River 400 feet below.
He told his friend Scott Beaton about it, and the two men and their wives decided to go into partnership to buy the property. Both Cook and Beaton had worked for many years in the tree fruit industry.
"We were both at a crossroads, trying to decide where to go from there," said Cook.
"We'd lived in teepees and yurts, and were trying to decide what we were going to do," confirmed Beaton's wife, Wynne Weinreb. "God sent us this place."
They decided to grow fruit organically because they believed that chemical herbicides and pesticides were dangerous to workers and polluted the environment. They wanted to grow healthy and tasty fruit.
Cook now lives in a solar-powered house in the midst of one of the most picturesque and tranquil orchards around. At bloom time, a quiet "snip, snip" of scissors is the only evidence you'll hear that blossom thinning is going on.
Cook has two Ferrari tractors dating back to the early 1980s that sit idle most of the time. He tries to use as little gasoline as possible, and the less time he spends on machinery and mechanics, the more he likes it.
"There's enough for me to do," he said. "The more you use machinery, the more maintenance it requires. A lot of times, people find themselves having to hire a part-time or full-time mechanic, and then you get into the predicament where you have to expand your acreage to afford the full-time mechanic."
But there have been times when the tranquillity was disturbed--such as one July day in 1994 when Cook and Beaton were out in the orchard doing touch-up thinning and saw an immense cloud approach up the Columbia River. As it began to rain heavily, then hail, the two men ran out of the orchard and sat on a rock to watch the storm. From that vantage point, they saw their crop decimated.
"I was in shock for two days," Cook recalled. "It was five years of hard work, and we lost it in five minutes. It had taken us five years to get to that 100-bin crop."
The hail shredded tree bark, and most of the apples looked as if they had been gouged with a sharp teaspoon. Weinreb salvaged what she could, and hand packed it to help pay the bills.
"We had a bank loan that had to be paid," she said. "And it was either hand pack and sell it, or go into the red."
None of the fruit went to the Manson Growers packing house, as planned. Their neighbors, the Brownfields, let them use a cold storage room so they could sort and pack their fruit themselves. "It was strictly their kindness that saved us," Weinreb said.
Cook said the orchard is small enough that he can micromanage the operation with quality in mind, although workers are hired to do thinning, picking, and packing.
"I'm out there with the crew picking the apples so everything in those bins has to be the highest quality we can produce," he said, adding that each variety is picked three to five times. Pickers are paid by the hour.
The two families planted the last corner of their property with Honeycrisp apple trees this spring. Previous plantings have included Gala, Fuji, Braeburn, Sansa, and Ginger Gold apples, and Red Clapp, Bosc, and Cascade pears.
When planting new trees, they add a five-gallon bucket of compost to each planting hole, but are careful not to add too much nitrogen, otherwise the trees can grow too vigorously in the virgin soil. They believe in building the soil, and take soil samples every other year to determine if nutrients, such as bloodmeal, bonemeal, or seaweed need to be added.
They've used a variety of cover crops, rather than grass, and prefer red clover. As well as providing habitat for beneficial insects, it helps create a cool, lush environment in which fruit trees thrive, plus it adds considerable nitrogen to the soil when mowed. Cook said red clover supplies about 130 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre, compared with 160 pounds for alfalfa.
Fertigation helps to establish a good cover crop in new blocks. The partners make their own compost and brew it in 400-gallon tanks with water and nutrients. It is injected in 25-gallon batches into the irrigation system to be applied to the orchard. Fertilizer in a liquid form is easier to apply than solid compost, saving the use of a tractor, and the nutrients are probably more available to the plant roots, Cook said.
They use a sprayer to apply sulfur to control mildew, but codling moth is controlled by mating disruption. The orchard is part of the Howard Flat areawide codling moth project.
Much of the orchard borders on areas with wild plants such as sagebrush and bitterbrush, which can harbor pests such as stinkbugs.
But Cook's got stinkbugs under control, too. His program consists of
a reward of ten cents for each one a worker squishes.
Copyright 1999, Good Fruit Grower,105 South 18th Street, Suite 217,
Yakima, Washington 98901
Voice (509) 575-2315, (800) 487-9946, Fax (509) 453-4880