To market, to market
Selling through farmers’ markets has proven the most satisfying and lucrative option for organic fruit growers Jerry and Andrea Pipitone.
Red Globe peaches picked ripe from the tree at the Pipitone orchard.
The odometer on Jerry Pipitone’s truck has clocked over a quarter of a million miles.
Several days a week, almost year round, Pipitone drives from Rock Island in eastern Washington to farmers’ markets in the Seattle area to sell his organic fruits and spreads.
A former tugboat sailor, Pipitone moved to arid eastern Washington 30 years ago and grew organic vegetables, first as a hobby, then as a commercial venture. He leased a five-acre farm in Rock Island that had an acre of fruit trees and ended up buying it. He planted more fruit trees and today produces mainly fresh, dried, and processed soft fruits, plus a few vegetables such as tomatoes, garlic, shallots, and peppers.
Despite the many miles he drives, Pipitone enjoys going to the markets and is encouraged by the customer feedback. “You go over to Seattle, and people thank you all day long. They say, ‘Thank you for coming so
far.’ ‘Thank you for growing organic.’ ‘You don’t know how much we appreciate you coming.’”
During the summer, he drives to Seattle and back four days a week, visiting between two and four markets a day, including the famous Pike Place Market. At other times of the year, he goes less frequently to sell dried and processed fruits.
Pipitone has no interest in wholesaling, which he describes as “growing fruit for nothing so the rest of the world can enjoy it.”
And selling via the Internet didn’t prove to be a good way to reach new customers.
“There are obviously people who are successful at doing it, but the Web has become jammed with small marketers,” he said. “It’s not the big, golden opportunity it was five or ten years ago.”
On-farm sales are not feasible, either, because the orchard is not on a main highway, and the Pipitones are often away. His wife, Andrea, a member of the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s organic advisory board, works as a part-time bookkeeper for a couple of businesses.
So, almost all their production goes through farmers’ markets.
Pipitone, a founder of the Wenatchee Valley Farmers’ Market, said farmers’ markets are not places for shoppers to go to pick up cheap produce. “You go to get good fruit,” he said. “The idea of going to the farmers’ market to buy it for next to nothing from the farmer—that doesn’t make for a very prosperous farmer.”
Most farmers’ market shoppers care about their food and are willing to pay the price, he said. They tend to be well educated and knowledgeable about what they eat. Pipitone earns a premium with his organic, high-quality, ripe fresh fruit. He picks the apricots, peaches, nectarines, and Italian prunes when they’re almost ready to eat. His goal is to have the fruit on the consumer’s kitchen table within two to three days of being picked.
Leaving the fruit on the tree until it’s ripe results in significant cullage, but the culls are either dried or made into the organic low-sugar spreads that Andrea invented. The spreads contain no more than 23 percent sugar, compared with 65 percent in regular jams, and are designed to appeal to the health-conscious organic buyers.
Pipitone grows some old fruit varieties, such as the Riland apricot, that are no longer significant commercial varieties. Rilands tend to split on the tree and don’t ship well. “They’re not the perfect apricot to ship to New York City, but we have a good market for them as fresh fruit, and we don’t care about the cullage because that’s what we use for our processing,” he said. “We have a home for every piece of fruit.”
His peaches include Redhaven, Red Globe, J.H. Hale, Elberta, Rio Oso Gem, and O’Henry, and he has just planted PF-1, the earliest of Paul Friday’s Flamin’ Fury peaches, to help stretch out the market. He also
has the Blushing Star white-fleshed peach, which appeals to Asian populations in Seattle.
He is constantly updating his orchard. His newer plantings are on a 9- by 16-foot spacing. He grows vegetables between the rows until the trees start to shade them out. After about six years, he removes alternate trees.
Nectarines are the hardest to grow because they’re susceptible to thrips, which move in from vegetation next to the orchard. Pipitone uses PyGanic, a pyrethrum insecticide, to control the thrips, and Bacillus thuringiensis to control peach twig borer. The only other insect he has to deal with is green peach aphid. “What we do is we grit our teeth and don’t look at it for three days, and come back, and something ate them,” he said. “If you want natural predators to come in and control your problems, you have to provide food for them. The idea of wiping out an insect doesn’t work.”
Occasionally, when his tolerance is low, he applies a soap spray to slow down the aphids.
His major focus is on soil building, with composts and clover cover crops to boost the nitrogen. “Mix a healthy environment and a healthy soil, and the tree will take care of itself,” is his philosophy.
Pipitone said farming brings him huge satisfaction.
“Like most farmers, you wouldn’t do it for the money because there isn’t enough money in it. I’ve already concluded that wealth is not in my future. But it’s very satisfying to me. I feel a sense of accomplishment.”