Storm of a lifetime
This was the first hail to hit the Bossenbrock orchard in almost a century.
Carmen Bossenbrock with hail stones that she kept in her freezer after the storm.
In late summer, Carmen Bossenbrock would normally be sitting on her porch proudly watching her d’Anjou pear crop grow and ripen. But this season, there wasn’t a single piece of fruit on the trees to admire.
Her seven-and-a-half-acre orchard at Dryden, Washington, includes a dozen trees that her grandfather planted in 1909, some of which can produce a full ton of pears each. In a good year, as harvest approaches, it takes eleven props to hold up just one leader on one of the trees.
But in early July this year, a hailstorm ripped through the area. A fierce wind accompanied by hail stones the size of walnuts battered the fruit, ripped branches off the trees, dammed up her irrigation ditches with leaves, killed birds and butterflies, and even dented her brother’s car.
“This lasted for 30 minutes,” Bossenbrock recalled. “It was terrifying.”
Chuck Weaver, field representative for Chamberlin Distributing Company, Wenatchee, figures the hailstorm forged through 1,800 acres of orchard in the upper Wenatchee Valley. “It looked like everybody had summer pruned at the same time,” he said.
The Pear Bureu Northwest estimates that the hailstorm reduced the Wenatchee area’s pear crop by almost 1.4 million boxes.
The storm came totally out of the blue for Bossenbrock, who has lived at the orchard since she was 4 years old and recalls her mother saying that the orchard had never once been hit by hail.
After recovering from the shock of being hailed on for the first time in 97 years, Bossenbrock started contemplating what she would do at harvest with many thousands of pounds of unmarketable pears, some of which had been pelted multiple times.
Though this was her first experience with hail, she has faced frost damage before. She recalls one time when she paid a picker to go through her frost-damaged crop, putting only the best fruit in the bin at harvest.
Bossenbrock paid him by the hour—the equivalent of $21 a bin. When the warehouse ran the fruit, they packed only one box per bin, so she had 100 boxes of marketable fruit out of the 100 bins she delivered.
“I swore I would never do that again,” she said.
So this summer, she decided to cut her losses. Two weeks after the storm—while the pears were still relatively small—she had every piece of fruit removed from the trees and she disked and mowed the fruit into the ground.
“I don’t think it was an easy decision,” commented Weaver, who regularly visits Bossenbrock’s orchard. “It’s hard to knock a crop off when you’re half way through the year. You’ve probably got 75 percent of your expenses into the orchard, and then have to knock it off.”
But Bossenbrock has no regrets. If she hadn’t done it then, she’d have faced a much greater volume of cull pears to dispose of at harvest. Plus, she figured it was better for the trees, which were under some stress from hot weather. She’s hoping that the 12 trees she has from her grandfather’s original planting will make it to their centennial in 2009, and beyond.
Her grandfather Raymond Orcutt and his brothers worked in lumber mills after they arrived in the area from Michigan in 1904.
In 1909, they cleared 40 acres of timber and sagebrush at Dryden where they planted an apple and pear orchard. In 1919, her grandparents built a house next to the orchard, using a $1,999 kit from Gordon-Van Tine Company in Iowa.
After Bossenbrock’s parents divorced, when she was four years old, she and her mother and brother moved in with her grandparents, and she has lived in the house ever since, apart from while she was a student at Washington State University and Stanford University, California.
When her grandfather died in 1958, her grandmother Louise sold the orchard to her uncle, Gerald Orcutt, but he was a butcher and not interested in orchard work, so five years later he offered to sell it to Bossenbrock. By that time, she had a career as a physical therapist at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee, but she bought the orchard because she wanted to keep it in the family, especially since it was next to her home.
“It was at a time when I was so busy at the hospital, and very tired, and when he offered to sell me the ranch, it was a real diversion for me,” she recalled.
There were 250 stumps of apple trees that her uncle had cut down. Her neighbors got together, took out the stumps and hauled them away, charging her only $25. “They were trying to help me because I was working so hard at the hospital,” she said.
She gradually replanted the orchard to d’Anjou pears, with Bartlett as pollinizers so she had only one harvest to deal with, and sold part of it to her brother Bill Bossenbrock.
Since she retired from hospital work in 1992, she’s been able to devote more time to the orchard and do the work in a more leisurely manner.
Her brother’s orchard is irrigated by sprinklers, but hers is irrigated from ditches, just as it was almost a century ago. Digging the ditches and irrigating are among the tasks she likes to do, along with disking and mowing.
Now aged 78, Bossenbrock is in her orchard every day, lavishing care on her grandfather’s trees, which she believes are among the oldest in the Wenatchee Valley.
“I enjoy being in the orchard,” she said. “It keeps me busy, and I love to see it grow. I want to do it until I physically can’t do it any more. This is good therapy for me. My church is in the orchard.”
The loss of this year’s crop has in no way dented her enthusiasm.
“I have to be philosophical about this and say once in 97 years is pretty lucky,” she said.