A better life
Former orchard workers find success as orchardists.
Cousins and partners Heriberto Espinoza (left) and Rogelio Mora started out as orchard workers, then leased orchards, and were eventually able to buy acreage. After working two jobs for 15 years, Espinoza is now a full-time orchardist. Mora works at the l
Twenty years ago, Heriberto "Eddie" Espinoza was in college in Mexico, studying engineering and computer science.
The poor economic situation made it difficult to pay for college, so when an uncle came home from Washington State to visit the family in Michoacán, Espinoza decided to to go back north with him to pick apples.
"My mom was disappointed," he recalled. "My dad, he never said much."
His cousin Rogelio Mora and family were already working in the Wenatchee, Washington, area. Mora was eleven when his family arrived in the early 1980s. He attended high school, but dropped out to do orchard work.
In 1992, the two cousins were doing orchard work and taking English lessons from Marjorie Brogan, a tutor at Wenatchee Valley College, when she suggested that they plant some orchard on a five-acre piece of bare ground that she owned.
They planted Gala apples, and that led to them leasing more orchards in the Wenatchee area. "We were thinking about doing something different to add an improvement to our lives," Espinoza said. "The first thing we knew at that time was orchard work, so we decided to start leasing orchards."
They kept their full-time orchard jobs and gradually bought the orchard equipment they needed out of their paychecks.
"The hard part was no one believed in us. We were really young," recalled Espinoza, who was in his early twenties at the time.
Orchard for sale
Ten years ago, Espinoza got a job at the pressroom in The Wenatchee World . Mora also joined The World's staff in 2001 after getting laid off from an orchard when apple prices were down. They worked at their leased orchards in the early mornings, before work, and again in the evenings, trying to do most of the work themselves.
In 2001, an orchard in East Wenatchee came up for sale. The cousins had the fruit from their leased orchards at the warehouse, but had not received their returns. Wenatchee World publisher Rufus Woods loaned them the down payment to buy the orchard, which they paid back when they got their check from the warehouse.
"That was the best thing, to buy instead of leasing, because whatever you give to lease is almost a payment on an orchard," Mora said.
They now own 40 acres of orchard and lease 40 acres. Last year, after working two jobs for 15 years, Espinoza left The Wenatchee World to focus on fruit growing. The cousins take most of their apples, pears, and cherries to Stemilt Growers, Inc., in Wenatchee. This summer, they received an award from Stemilt for being the top Gala apple growers of the 2007 season, based on the quality of the fruit they delivered.
"We knew we had a good crop, but we never thought about getting an award," Mora said. "We're just trying to do a good job, with good size, good color, good everything."
If they focus on doing things right, success will come by itself, he believes. "We're thinking of doing things right every day, every year."
The cousins say they use the same practices as other growers, with a big emphasis on pruning and chemical thinning to promote fruit size. They've had many years of hands-on experience in pruning and, as orchard owners, still prefer to do the pruning themselves. They've learned that each variety must be treated differently. "Every year you learn what to do to improve your crop," Espinoza said. "That's our goal—to be better every year."
In addition to apples, pears, and cherries, they grow peaches, nectarines, apricots, apriums, and Pluots, which they sell themselves.
Mora continues to work at The Wenatchee World—putting in ten hours a day four days a week—and devotes his spare time to the orchard. In the summer and fall, he drives to western Washington every weekend delivering fruit to fruit stands and farmers' markets. Every year, they plant new and earlier maturing strains of soft fruits, partly to diversify but also to satisfy their customers.
The cousins experienced some tough years with low returns on apples during the 1990s, but managed to stay afloat by doing most of the work themselves and diversifying their crops. "We never borrow any money to farm the orchard," Mora said. "We still are doing it ourselves from our own money."
"We just kept going," Espinoza added. "When you start something, you have always got to work hard and keep doing it until it works."
However, they say they couldn't have been successful without the help of their friends, including Woods, horticulturists Steve Harris and Darrell Fry, and the people who work for them.
"I think if you pay fair to people, they will do a good job," Espinoza said. "Really, what matters is the workers, because without them we're nothing. You can have a hundred acres, but if you have no workers, that won't help."
Mora said their main goal now is to keep working for themselves and keep growing.
Despite their success, Espinoza sometimes wonders where he would be if he'd continued to pursue a career as an engineer. "That was on my mind all the time, but it's kind of hard now. That's the only goal I haven't completed in my life. But my mind then was to improve my life, no matter what."