Rodale Institute Article
Posted September 13, 2004
Jerzy Boys Farm grows award winning fruit in North Central Washington
How an ill-fated cross-country motorcycle trip turned Wynne Weinreb and Scott Beaton into icons of sustainable fruit production.
Jerzy Boys farm, a 5-acre organic pear and apple orchard in the Lake Chelan Valley of Central Washington State, has been family owned and operated by Wynne Weinreb and Scott Beaton since 1989. Wynne and Scott learned their trade by working for conventional growers for a decade while saving for their own place. The couple has helped pioneer organic tree fruit farming in their area and has received notoriety both as representatives and advocates for the small American grower. Earlier this year, Wynne and Scott were honored at a program for Successful Organic Farmers at the 24th Annual Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove, Calif. Here is there story in their own words, as told to the crowd gathered to honor them:
Wynne: Scott and I were both raised on the East Coast: I grew up in the heart of New York City, and Scott grew up surfing on the sandy beaches of New Jersey. We met in Boston, where we both received our undergraduate degrees. I was working days as a research librarian and nights as a goldsmith and jeweler. Scott was working as a sports coach for low- income inner-city youth and introducing them to wilderness adventure
In 1979, we embarked on a year-long motorcycle trip across the continent. When our motorcycle broke down near the town of Lake Chelan, Washington, we decided to settle down and raise a family. We built an environmentally low impact fieldstone house on 10 pristine acres on the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains, living in a teepee and then in a Mongolian-style yurt. Half of the year we worked in conventional and organic orchards in Washington with pome fruit, and half of the year we worked in Florida with citrus fruit. That was where we were in 1987, when we decided to start a not for profit organization that initiated Central Washington’s first recycling center, an idea that brought the town into running a municipal recycling center, which Scott runs and which has been a model for other local initiatives across the state.
“Wynne… actually sorts and sells and researches all day long at the same time… Plus, she manages to call me during that, too, and makes sure that I am doing what I am supposed to do. “
In 1989 we started Jerzy Boys Farm on a virgin strip of land, 6 miles north of Lake Chelan on a breathtaking south-facing bluff overlooking the mighty Columbia River. Jerzy Boys now grows seven main apple and pear crops, emphasizing organic soil maintenance, organic pest control, meticulous pruning and closely monitored harvesting practices, in order to maximize flavor, texture and color, producing what we think is some of the best fruit in the world. Some people agree.
In October 2002, House & Garden magazine called Jerzy Boys pears “the most flavorful pears from American soil.” In December 2003, Jerzy Boys farm was profiled in a documentary film Broken Limbs, by Jamie Howell and Guy Evans, as a new model for the Washington State Apple industry. And Jerzy Boys farm is featured in a forthcoming book on organic farming by Linda Egenes and Rick Donhauser called Green Angels.
I am going to talk first about how we got into organic farming, then Scott will talk a little about the orchard techniques that we think make our product special, and lastly we will mention how we handle some of the market challenges facing the organic producer and the small specialty farm in today’s global marketplace.
I first became interested in agriculture in the 1970s when I changed my own eating habits to organic cheese, fruits and vegetables and whole grains in response to the ranching and animal husbandry practices that have led to today’s problems with mad cow disease, salmonella in poultry products, and widespread human resistance to antibiotics. We began reading widely about organic farming and began growing our own gardens in 1980.
Year-round we supply much of our own products to ourselves and our two teenagers. In fact, when we began honing our practical skills by working in both temperate and semi-tropical fruit production, we became all too familiar with the relentless applications of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, as well as the petroleum-based fertilizer fumes that permeated our clothes, houses and the air we breathed. Kids were being sprayed at the bus stops adjacent to the fields.
We have worked in orchard agriculture for 10 years, learning everything what we could about pruning, grafting and harvesting, skills that you have to see and practice.
While Scott continued to manage the recycling center, we decided to invest all of our saving in acquiring the sheltered 35-acres plot of pristine land that began our organic orchard. We were later able to add an additional 30 acres. This virgin south bench on the bluff over the Columbia had ideal qualities for pome fruits farming. The site was also part of the area’s federally funded irrigation project, designed to help promote an agricultural economy without which it would be impossible to farm the bluffs.
The nutrient-rich program for building our sandy soil imparts such wonderful flavors to the flesh and skin of the fruit grown here in our region, this combines with the warm days and cool fall nights that are needed to produce that satisfying crunch that consumers crave in pome fruit. We selected the secluded location because none of this land had ever been harmed by the conventional pesticides use that was so pervasive in the upper growing region in the Columbia River Valley.
In planting our acreage, we developed each small block as time and money allowed, so that we would not find ourselves overreaching in production before we had an adequate storage and distribution system. We now have 3,000-plus trees on 5 acres, although we have had as many as 6,000-plus trees in production on 10 acres.
An important part of our planning involves marketing, being aware of culinary trends, trying to anticipate the next vogue in fruit and trying to create a sustainable market of consumers. To this end we emphasize diversity. We started with the Gala, Braeburn, and Fuji apples and Red Clapp’s Pears, chosen all on the basis of their great taste, but now we have expanded to the Honeycrisp apple, du Comice and Taylor’s Gold Pears. We have three dozens heirlooms and new cultivars under evaluation. This has also helped us weather the inevitable, yet always unexpected climatological obstacles.This year, for example, it looks like the Honeycrisp grafts, a strain developed in Minnesota, will be the sturdiest variety to weather the surprisingly brisk subzero weather that we have been having. With all the tempting new cultivars and heirloom revivals we always have to balance the practicalities of marketing our product against the pleasure and excitement of testing a new fruit in the field. Sometimes we will road test a variety by planting a few trees or a row to see how they do during several seasons. We reassess this variety over 3 to 5 years and decide whether to expand the planting or not.
We continually renew our cover crops and try to regraft or replant our trees so as to have up to 20 percent of the orchard in renewal. When we were first setting out, we grew our own rootstock and grafted the cultivars ourselves. The interesting in more exotic and unusual varieties has enlarged the available support system, so we now get already grafted and licensed trees or, if needed, we order dormant scions from other collectors. We have the help of agronomists and grafters who assist us in testing and evaluating different techniques for grafting, pruning and crop management on our particular site.
At this point let me hand the discussion over to Scott to talk a bit about our agricultural choices and challenges.
Scott: I also want to give a big hug to Wynne, because she is really the full-time worker out there. She is the boss. I try to get by her went I get out there, but it’s tough, she runs the place and she actually does all the spraying, which is interesting, she does all the packing, and she has kept us in business by selling our fruit and we appreciate all the people that have helped us with that.
Organic farming is a lot of fun in some ways—you get to grow and eat your own healthy fruit, you get to test new varieties and work with composting, which is really a lot of fun, and you get to share your healthful product with people. Our area has a pretty perfect area for growing in a lot of ways. Most of the time, we have warm days and then we have cool nights. We are located 17 miles from a 6,000 to 7,000 foot elevation, so get a lot of cold air coming down at night, and then the elevation works its way up until 12,000 feet in the middle of the Cascades, so we are right on the other side of the Cascades. We have irrigation from the federal irrigation project that is in the area.
We are at the end of the road, but one of our biggest challenges has been, and still is, trying to build up a sandy desert soil with no organic content. So when we started, we planted cover crops and we got into composting alfalfa, cow manure, minerals and organic fertilizers in our compost. It seems to work pretty well if you can get that stuff composted in there. We have been able to come up with an old tractor with a bucket which was one of our biggest tools that we had gotten at that time and that move the materials, and we also have a rotovator with which we can mix the materials. We can usually compost all our fruit waste in our compost piles.
“Organic farming is a lot of fun in some ways—you get to grow and eat your own healthy fruit, you get to test new varieties and work with composting, which is really a lot of fun, and you get to share your healthful product with people.”
And then the fun thing, too, is we can grow a lot of our summer vegetables in our old compost pile area, so we can get some really good food out of our own compost piles. We really regard composting as one of our most important assets; we have tried to put on about 5 tons an acre almost every year. We don’t always get that much on there, but we really try to do that, and even though we haven’t figure out how to apply the material with machines—we have to do it by hand—so that part of the composting job really gets to be a big job. But we think that is worth it.
On our cover crops, we basically try to replant them as the orchard grass tends to come in and take over the cover crops. Sometimes we have to do that every couple of years, or three years, and we choose a diversity of flowering cereals, herbs and leguminous plants for cover crops, in order to attract beneficial insect life. To control rodents our region is rich in natural predators, by that I mean rattlesnakes. I don’t know how many gophers they really get, but we are basically surrounded by wild land everywhere, like a lot of you.
Rattlesnakes are a very usual occurrence in the field and that’s how we got our labels. Nobody has gotten hurt, but people look at us kind of oddly when we talk about them as being our friends, and they really get scared of them when they come up on you or you run into them. We try to not kill them too much and that kind of stuff, but they are around.
We apply mineral organic fertilizers to the orchard floor on a regular basis, and we look at our soil samples every year, and we make decisions on which nutrients to apply. We spray and foliar feed, Wynne is a big fertigator and she is really into that; the neighbors think she is brewing up witch’s brew or something, and they are all “what is that lady doing with that 50-gallon barrel,” but she is really into fertigating, so we get some stuff out there that way.
Some pests are more tendentious than others. We have problems with thrips, birds, wild ants, mildew, gophers…But of course these are pests that everybody in apples knows. We have used pheromone mating disruption ties since we began, but we have a very windy side with lots of air drainage in a very narrow strip of land, and the pheromones haven’t been efficient. Good work through hygiene is imperative, and we try to keep the trees thinned well. We need to be able to look at the trees and if they are having deadheads out there they need to be removed. We have to be able to see them; we can’t leave the fruit too thick. We want our sprays to work in there, and we do have to spray periodically for coddling moth.
Growing new varieties is challenging, as we explore the susceptibility to bitterpit, low production, and alternate bearing. We recently turned to trying to spray thinning flowers instead of hand-thinning methods that we used to use, and that is always interesting.
We spray fairly regularly, and we try to pay attention to what is going on in the field to keep ahead of potential pest problems.
One thing we are considering in evaluating commercial production of a new variety is the cost of maintaining it. Some of the new varieties often you have to spray at least eight calcium sprays on some of these varieties because they are a little difficult. But weather has been the most constant challenge for us, as I am sure you are all aware. We really try to keep our trees carefully shaped—not just because myself and one of the other guys at work are over 50 so can’t have the trees too big now; when you are older you can’t get on that 18-foot ladder. We also are trying to give every apple the perfect spot on the tree, so we want to get rid of the crap on the bottom of the tree. We believe that a good apple, if it’s going to be a really tasty good apple, has to have its spot, and that’s always a challenge. So we will actually go through pruning three times during the year and then, our last pruning during the summer, we will give every apple a spot that doesn’t have it then and get rid of what crap is on there.
We are taking gamble. We want to get our fruit out in the open but we also have to deal with extreme temperatures because we had many days over 105 this year. And the skin temperature can’t get over 115. So we do some spraying for sunburn.
But I guess pest haven’t been really our worst problem, weather extremes have been. We have had hail storms, early harvest freezes (we went down to 7 degrees during harvest last year, which damaged a lot of buds for this year). This year we had a windstorm at 60 miles and hour during harvest. But out worst storm was on our eleventh wedding anniversary on July 9, 1994, when 1 ½ inch of hard, spiky hail destroyed our crop and ripped our trees just to shreds. But it was kind of a blessing because we ended up having to sell our own crop and learned how to do that, and we went to farmers markets and tried to convince people that the dings were not some kind of a disease, and it actually gave us some experience there.
We figured out that at this point we needed to pack our own crop and market our own crop, so we stored it in a shed 25 miles away. It was 1995, and the demand for our organic varieties was very high. At that time, we sold mostly to Seattle supermarkets and a large national distributor. In 1996, it became apparent that, if we can pack our own fruit inside, we can make things easier for others and save time.
Well, typically the big apple packing sheds are now using computerized equipment that cost millions of dollars to run millions of pounds of fruit. We invested in a small packing shed and cold storage. We had a metal pole building built on a slat we poured, and we bought a salvaged compressors and evaporators. Meanwhile, Wynne was visiting all these old, obsolete packing sheds, and she was looking for equipment that we could put to use, and she basically savaged the queen of the packing lines, a 1936 Cutler Grader, which is a virtually indestructible packing line/sizer, grader. These were used for decades until the ’70s when the sheds consolidated. We were able to salvage two complete systems for $500. For many, these machines were a thing of the past, but for us, a 1935 breakthrough in the apple industry was a beautiful piece of equipment, perfectly suited for us.
Setting up the packing, sorting and storage facilities, there is a lot of optimized quality control. Wynne uses a sorter, and she actually sorts and sells and researches all day long at the same time, so she is, I guess, multitasking there. Plus, she manages to call me during that, too, and makes sure that I am doing what I am supposed to do.This means we can make sure the fruit is not being bruised or picked too early or late; the end result is that we can grade the fruit, and it goes into the boxes to our high standards. Wynne knows what the fields guys are doing, she knows who is damaging the fruit, and she will pretty much take care of that.
Wynne has developed a Marketing plan that enables us to get information about our product to the public and to reach them through a variety of venues, some mailed to the costumers, some gourmet catalogs and some sold on site, as we did for a Japanese tour group recently.
I am going to finish up just saying that I was kind of a migrant laborer for about 10 years, picking millions of pounds of apples. I can tell you I had no desire in eating these apples, they didn’t taste good.
When we decided to go into this crazy business, it was a big challenge. Now I can honestly say that there is such thing as a wonderful apple, and I eat apples every day and they can be very wonderful.