Jerry Haak, one of Washington State’s most progressive tree fruit growers, knew he could die young.
At the age of 19, he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a severe form of arthritis that affects the joints and the eyes. Doctors told him when he was 21 that he had the joints of an 85-year-old and predicted that he would be wheelchair bound by the time he was 35.
Haak continued to walk—though often with difficulty—throughout his life. Last November, he visited Arizona, where it is thought that he became infected by the fungal disease, coccidioidomycosis, a severe form of valley fever. He died December 25, a couple of days after being hospitalized.
Severe pain and numerous surgeries, including knee and hip replacements, had never stopped Haak from excelling as a grower and philanthropist.
“It was remarkable how much he was able to achieve, given his severe physical limitations,” commented Yakima, Washington, grower Charlie de la Chapelle. He and Haak were among a small group of growers who used to meet regularly for lunch. “Jerry was in chronic pain the entire time I’d known him,” de la Chapelle said. “But he never talked about it.”
What Haak loved to talk about was fruit growing. The lunch group members would discuss what they’d done right and what they’d done wrong. “And Jerry was notable in that he was the most aggressive at learning, and the most aggressive at teaching and at trying new ideas and making them work. Not too many of us had the success he had,” said de la Chapelle.
Friend and partner Don Weippert described Haak as one of the smartest people in the state of Washington and said he had remarkable business skills. “He knew how to get things done. He had so many innovative thoughts, and some were way out there. He had more ideas before breakfast than most people had in a whole day. He was involved in a bazillion different things.”
Bob Price, president of Price Cold Storage in Yakima, recently went into partnership with Haak to purchase equipment for a new presort line and build more cold storage. That was one of about 17 limited-partnership companies Haak was involved in.
“He didn’t know how long he was in this world, so he was always on a fast track to get to the next best thing,” Price said. “He kind of wanted to do everything.”
Haak was born in Delavan, Wisconsin, in 1962 and grew up in Outlook, Washington, where his parents, Henry and Karen Haak, had a dairy farm. He attended Sunnyside Christian School and Sunnyside High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture/business from Dordt College in Iowa in 1984 and married Rosie Bosma, whom he had met in sixth grade.
He was a loan officer for Northwest Farm Credit in Yakima for several years. Working with growers made him want to try growing fruit himself, so he planted his first 15-acre block in 1987, which he managed in his spare time.
As he expanded his orchard and it became more profitable, he kept plowing the profits back into his operation. Washington Fruit and Cold Storage packed his fruit.
“We said, ‘Gee, this is nice fruit,’” recalled Cliff Plath, a partner at Washington Fruit. “And then we went to the orchard and said, ‘What a neat guy!’”
Not long after, Plath drove Haak from his orchard in Sunnyside to visit a Washington Fruit ranch in the Tri-Cities.
“I was just fascinated with this neat young guy. He was a banker, and he not only was doing a good job farming, he understood the financial end of the business. On the way back, we came to an agreement, and he came to work for Washington Fruit.”
About 20 years later, Plath confided to Haak that he had set off that day with no idea of asking him to work for the company. Haak responded that it had been exactly his plan.
Plath said Haak did a great job as a field horticulturist, helping to develop some of the best farmers in the state. But after about ten years, as his own orchards expanded, Haak felt he no longer had enough time to focus on his farm and left the company.
Later, when one of Washington Fruit’s long-time growers retired, Haak agreed to operate the orchard as a part-time job, with a hired manager. In 2007, Plath and Haak went into partnership to establish an orchard that they called Jayhawk.
Long-time friend Steve Zediker, who worked for Farm Credit at the same time as Haak and is an orchardist in Sunnyside, said growing up on a dairy farm, rather than an orchard, proved no detriment to Haak.
“He knew agriculture, but he didn’t have all the paradigms that a kid growing up on an orchard did, and so he was willing to challenge our traditions,” he said. “He was a great thinker, and he wasn’t afraid to go ask somebody something.”
Early in his fruit-growing career, Haak would visit the state’s top growers, such as Grady Auvil, Doyle Fleming, and Ralph Broetje, to find out how they were growing fruit. “He investigated, and he tried to take the best of all of them,” Zediker recalled.
Dan Griffith, field horticulturist for G.S. Long and Company, Inc., Yakima, had worked with Haak since he began farming. He said Haak would surround himself with smart people and challenge them to tell him how he could improve his production and fruit quality. And then he’d figure out what the return on investment would be.
Griffith said if it was too painful for Haak to walk around the orchard when he visited, they’d ride on an ATV. Over the past year, they’d tour Haak’s ranches on Saturdays with his son Matthew so his son could learn more about horticulture in preparation for the day when he would be in charge.
Matt Haak, 26, who works at the packing house of Price Cold Storage, said it was not just success in the orchard that was important to his father.
“It was not about treasures on earth, it was always so much more than that. He was trying to build people. He took a great interest in his employees, and he would help them out all he could,” Matt said. “Everybody thought they were friends with him because he was always willing to help out. He was involved in many things outside the orchard.”
He was a board member of Partners Worldwide, whose goal is to create jobs in areas of high unemployment. The organization has a program called Farmer to Farmer in Zambia, which empowers subsistence farmers to become small-scale entrepreneurs. Haak wanted to go to Zambia to work on the project, but doctors told him a trip to Africa was out of the question because of his autoimmune problems caused by all the medications he had to take.
He also supported the local community and helped put together the financing to build the Sunnyside Christian Reformed Church.
At the celebration of his life at the church on December 30, which was attended by more than 1,100 people, his widow, Rosie, read letters that Haak had recently written to their children, Matt and his sisters, Ashley (22) and Alyssa (20). Haak told them that it’s often the second mouse that gets the cheese because the first gets caught in the trap.
Zediker said Haak’s philosophy was that you don’t have to be first all the time, and it’s good sometimes to be second or third. “What he was trying to convey was if you’re smart enough to learn by someone else’s mistakes—if they’re willing to share and you’re willing to listen—you get the prize.”
But Haak was often on the cutting edge of horticulture himself. Rosie said Haak was widely recognized as a leading grower, but few knew about the medical issues he faced.
“It was always really fun for me to watch that a man with such limited mobility could challenge the rest of the industry to keep up with him,” she said. “That was the irony that I got to see as his wife. I’m the only one that really knew the whole story behind him. He was so quick in so many ways, and yet he had this limited physical mobility.”
Price has been working with the Washington Apple Education Foundation to establish a memorial scholarship in Haak’s name. •