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Mike O’Brien, who farmed with his brother Craig for 40 years, says that a family farm must keep changing with the times in order to survive. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Mike O’Brien, who farmed with his brother Craig for 40 years, says that a family farm must keep changing with the times in order to survive. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Good Fruit Growers of the Year Craig and Mike O’Brien have long collaborated with Washington State University Craig said it’s their way of reciprocating for all that WSU does for the industry.

Situated only five miles away from WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center at Prosser, their operation has had an open door for scientists wanting to try out their inventions in a modern-day orchard.

“They’ve been open and collaborative,” said Karen Lewis, WSU extension specialist, describing the brothers as humble and generous.

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– Collaborative approach
– Change is guaranteed
– Who will pick the fruit?

Their 2-by-10-foot Gala planting on spindle, planted 14 years ago, was ahead of its time and drove a lot of their management decisions, Lewis said. It taught them about canopy management, controlling sunburn, and spray technology. “They’ve planted at high densities and have stepped out and learned. They’re front-runners in how to manage the canopy and get control of it in such tight plantings. They really had to learn about precision horticulture.”

Dr. Matt Whiting, horticulturist with WSU at Prosser, said he’s worked on a number of collaborative projects with the O’Briens in both apples and cherries.

Their operation represents the next-generation orchard and has been a good testing ground for new technology. Almost a decade ago, John Deere took an autonomous vehicle there to test how it could navigate up and down the narrow alleys.

Whiting said they’re not the only orchardists with modern plantings, but they’ve shown an exceptional willingness to collaborate and share their vision.

“You have a couple of people here who do believe in the greater good of the industry and are willing to host tours and have meetings and demonstrations in their blocks.” •