Diversity keeps the business profitable
Medium-sized organic grower Ray Fuller focuses on quality, not quantity.
Stephane Bellon (right), a researcher from INRA in France, discusses organic farming practices with Chelan grower Ray Fuller (left) and organic consultant Harold Ostenson.
with 125 acres of orchard on a steep north slope overlooking Lake Chelan in Washington State, Ray Fuller can’t be a low-cost fruit producer.
Instead, Fuller has concentrated on producing the latest varieties of apples, cherries, and pears, and growing them all organically. He has Rainier, Skeena, Lapins, Kootenay, and Staccato cherries, along with Ginger Gold, SweeTango, Gala, Honeycrisp, Ambrosia, and Piñata apples, and Bosc and d’Anjou pears.
The focus is on quality, not quantity.
What’s made him the most money over the last 20 years?
“Diversity,” Fuller says without hesitation. “Rarely are you going to have apples, pears, and cherries down in the same year. You get the bills paid that way, and stay in business.”
Fuller’s family bought Stormy Mountain Ranch in 1962, when he was five years old and didn’t have much say in the matter. It’s on a north-facing slope at an elevation of between 1,300 to 1,900 feet above sea level. The range in elevation complements the orchard’s diversification by spreading out the harvest.
Since Fuller transitioned to organic production in the mid-1980s, there have been a number of breakthroughs. One is mating disruption for codling moth, which became available in the early 1990s.
When he started growing organic apples, his codling moth control program included sprays of Ryania (a botanical insecticide made from the stems of a tropical plant), the codling moth granulosis virus, and the biopesticide Bacillus thuringiensis, along with attractants and ultraviolet protectants.
“We went through every other row every four days,” Fuller recalled when a group of scientists visited his orchard during an International Organic Fruit Research Symposium this summer. “We didn’t get much done besides spraying, then. Mating disruption really brought organic growing into the mainstream. The tools we have now compared to when I was starting in the mid-1980s—there’s no comparison.”
Another breakthrough has been organic thinning sprays, using fish oil and lime sulfur. That, Fuller says, has been the single greatest economic breakthrough for organic growers. It’s helped increase fruit size, reduce labor needs, and minimize biennial bearing. He uses it on both apples and cherries, sometimes supplemented by hand thinning. He had good results with a mixture of 2 percent lime sulfur and 2 percent fish oil, with the amount of spray depending on the variety and time of year. Now, he’s using 2.5 percent lime sulfur and 1 percent fish oil, which is less harmful to leaves and is cheaper because of the rising cost of fish oil.
If there are still too many cherries, he uses grass shears to clip the crop to 30 cherries per foot. His goal is to peak on sizes 8 to 9-1/2.
“We have to raise the highest quality fruit that can be raised to stay in business,” he said. “Our goal is to have the absolute biggest cherry we can get. We get an outstanding increase in fruit size from thinning. If it’s a 10-1/2 to 11-row cherry, a lot of times we don’t pick it. We just leave it in the orchard.”
Gisela 6 is his favorite cherry rootstock, though he also has Rainier and Lapins on G.5. Trees on G.6 rarely overset, in his experience, and if they do, the fruit tends to drop.
Replant disease, which stunts young trees in replanted soil, continues to be a problem in organic systems. Fuller said he’s had mixed results when planting cherries in old apple soil, which he can only attribute to replant disease.
Dr. Mark Mazzola, plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Wenatchee, Washington, is conducting a trial at Fuller’s orchard, using various organic soil amendments to combat the disease. Until a biological control becomes available, Fuller’s strategy is to take the block out of organic certification when replanting and transition it back to organic after fumigating the ground. “That’s the only way we’ve been able to replant and have an economical result,” he said.
Fuller expects that the greatest challenge for organic growers during the coming decade will not be a horticultural one. It will be politics, and specifically the inability of politicians to rise above party politics to help resolve labor and immigration issues. In June, Fuller was already short about 15 workers and was concerned about having enough pickers.
Marketing the fruit is not something he worries much about, however.
“The future of organic, I think, is outstanding,” he said, noting that 30 percent of the fruit packed and sold by Stemilt Growers, Inc., one of Washington’s largest tree fruit companies, is organic. “The organic market is growing every year.”