Strategies for Success
Expansion and diversification are behind the success of Good Fruit Growers of the Year Jim and Rena Doornink.
Jim and Rena Doornink planted this block of Jazz apples last spring. Jazz will fill a gap in their harvest schedule between Honeycrisp and Fuji, keeping their crew busy all summer long.
During his 35 years as an orchardist, Jim Doornink has always enjoyed strategizing about how to run a successful orchard business—and how to keep it successful.
The 64 acres of family orchard at Parker, Washington, that he started out with in 1974 have grown to 260 acres. Once heavily planted to Red Delicious, the orchard is now a "Red-free zone," as he describes it.
Jim and his wife and business partner Rena feel strongly that an orchard that is not in constant change is at risk of going under, even though keeping an orchard updated is expensive and also incurs risk. Figuring that the lifespan of an apple orchard is 20 years, a grower must replant 5 percent of the orchard every single year to avoid falling behind. Apricot and peach varieties become outdated even faster, perhaps in as little as 15 years, Jim points out.
Number crunching and strategizing are two aspects of farming that Jim has always enjoyed. Friend and neighbor Chuck Peters of Wapato remembers working with Jim and another neighbor Dale Williams in the early 1980s to develop pro forma budgets for replanting orchard blocks, using an Apple II computer. They developed a program to analyze the costs and potential return on investment.
Jim still spends a lot of time on the computer, tracking costs and analyzing data so he knows exactly what's going on in the orchard and can discuss with other growers what works and what doesn't. Every grower makes mistakes, he said, and he's found it valuable to share information with fellow growers so they can avoid all making the same mistakes. He believes strongly that a grower needs to go out into the industry to learn from others, even though it may be difficult for a diversified grower who is picking fruit every day during the summer and fall to get away.
"You have to discipline yourself and try to go somewhere else," he said. "It's very beneficial if you talk to other people in the industry. That makes the industry strong, and the grower strong."
Jim enjoys the science involved in growing fruit, while Rena focuses more on labor management. He has been a board member of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission since 1985, and chair since 1997. He was part of the steering group that drew up the Tree Fruit Industry Technology Roadmap, which ultimately became a national effort to reduce the cost of producing the highest quality fruit.
Little did the group know at the time that the government would introduce the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which has provided millions of dollars in grants for research priorities identified in the roadmap. By having the plan already in place, the tree fruit industry was able to gain a disproportionate share of the grants, Jim noted.
He's excited about scientific developments, such as remote temperature monitoring for frost management and other types of automated orchard data acquisition, which will help managers be more efficient. He envisions that Global Positioning Systems will be fitted to tractors to record which parts of the orchard were sprayed at a particular time, for example, and he's looking forward to seeing orchard maps overlaid with yield, spray, and irrigation data.
He expects to see greater use of electronics and computer applications for managing information and decision making.
Expanding the orchard to take advantage of economies of scale has been part of their ongoing strategy.
"When we started farming, we started at 64 acres," Jim recalled. "We thought, wow, that was huge. We thought we were ahead of the curve."
Soon, the Doorninks realized the average size of the orchards in Washington was increasing, and they no longer felt they had such a large orchard at 64 acres. They bought another 40 acres, and felt they'd pushed ahead of the curve again. In about five to seven years, Jim started to feel that 100 acres wasn't very large any more. The average orchard size was still increasing.
"The reason that process is taking place is because the margins decrease and the number of acres necessary to sustain an operation and be efficient in your operation is moving up, moving up, moving up," Jim said. "We bought another 40 acres, and the same story, and another 60 acres, and another 10 acres."
Each time in that scenario, he felt his operation was large enough, but then he realized that because of economies of scale and diminishing margins, the amount of acreage required to be successful had gone up.
There are benefits to being larger, Jim has found. At some point, you cannot do all the work yourself, so you can choose which jobs you like the most and hire people to do the rest.
"Personally, I like mechanical work, and I feel comfortable and confident and self-reliant doing that kind of stuff," he said. "It's fun for me. When something breaks down, I like the challenge of diagnosing and fixing it and getting it going again."
However, as the size increases further, the management style has to change, he said. "At some point, you can't have your finger on the pulse of all of the parts of the system. That's hard for us because the way we have operated until now is we've been able to pull the puppet strings on all the operation. I think if we were to double the size of our operation right now, it would mean we would have to significantly change the way we operate. We would need some midlevel management. We haven't figured out if that's the right thing to go to or whether a small, incremental change is the right thing."
As well as expanding, it's important to keep up with the new varieties, otherwise you can go downhill very quickly, the Doorninks say.
Part of the Doorninks' success strategy is to grow the largest proportion possible of target fruit—fruit that the market wants.
Fruit must be in the target sizes, which for Gala are normally 80 and 72, but can change with the crop year. "We try to squeeze the normal size distribution down so it doesn't go from 138s to 56s on the same tree," Jim explained.
With Honeycrisp, target fruit must have the right maturity.
Diversification has been another successful strategy for them. Their harvest period begins with cherries (both organic and conventional) in June, followed by four varieties of apricots, then pears (mainly Bartletts with a few d'Anjou pollenizers). Apple harvest starts with Gala, followed by Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious, Fuji, and finally Pink Lady in November. The Golden Delicious are on the removal list, and a new planting of Jazz apples will help fill a gap between Honeycrisp and Fuji.
"Part of our strategy is you get a crew you can keep through the whole summer," Jim said. "You don't pick every day, but you pick almost every day."