Columbia Basin Nursery will ship its last trees this spring, allowing the three women who have run the business for the past 20 years to move on to other adventures.
Gie Perleberg and her husband, Carl, established the nursery and orchard in the early 1960s. While growing up, their daughters, Dena and Carla, were expected to help out, and both returned to work for the business after college. Since Carl died from cancer in 1992, Dena has managed the growing side of the business while Carla and Gie have run the office and accounting side.
“Dena and I have different strengths,” Carla said. “We each have our own area. We’re complementary.”
Almost from the time she could walk, Dena would be out with her father, Carl, watching him trying out his latest horticultural ideas. “I never wanted to go inside,” she said.
Carla, on the other hand, disliked being out in the field. “During the summers, I had to work outside, but I tried to show how I would be better inside,” she recalled. “Dena learned how to bud and tie, and I did the counting behind her. By my senior year in high school, I was helping in the office.”
Dena went to Eastern Washington University, not intending to return to the family business. But when career surveys kept highlighting her aptitude for agriculture, she transferred to Washington State University, where she earned a degree in horticulture in 1987.
Her father believed that school was where a person learned vocabulary and that the real learning would take place on the farm. Dena absorbed everything he could teach her about growing trees and fruit.
Carla, who is seven years younger, also attended Eastern Washington University, earning a degree in accounting. She returned to the nursery and took over from her mother as office manager and controller. Gie shifted to processing tree orders and doing “vital behind-the-scenes” work, as her daughters describe it.
Gie grew up on a 12-acre orchard in Penticton, British Columbia. Her parents had emigrated to Canada from Germany, and German was her first language. Carl grew up in New Jersey and had a grandfather who had emigrated from Germany. The two families met, when she was 16 and he was 19, through an association for people of German heritage.
After Carl graduated from college in New Jersey, the couple married, and he served for two years as a landscape beautification officer with the U.S. Army. In 1956, he got a job with Pacific Supply, based in Portland, Oregon, as a fieldman in Quincy.
Carl decided to plant an orchard and started growing the nursery trees in their backyard. However, finding there were customers for the trees, he founded Columbia Basin Nursery instead. Four years later, in 1964, he got to plant his own orchard, using unsold trees, and Gie quit her job with a bank in Quincy to focus on the farm.
As he developed his orchard, Carl became renowned in the tree fruit world. “He had innovative ideas that might not be standard,” Gie recalled.
For example, he was an enthusiastic member of the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association, but decided not to plant trees on dwarfing rootstocks, which he feared would not be winter hardy enough for the Quincy area. He was convinced he could grow dwarfing trees on big rootstocks by scoring the trunks and planted a 50-acre block to prove his point. In the 1960s, he had Golden Delicious trees on seedling or Malling 106 or 111 rootstocks planted as close as three feet apart.
His unorthodox ideas attracted visitors from around the world, and Carl and Gie loved to travel around the country, visiting customers to see how they were growing fruit. Carl also liked to attend horticultural meetings and would always sit in the front row where he could listen intently and fire questions at the speakers when given a chance.
“He was very interested,” Gie recalled. “And if they said something that wasn’t right, he’d let them know.”
Not long after Carla joined the business, Carl became ill with cancer, and his daughters gradually took over management of the nursery and the 1,000 acres of orchard he had planted in the Quincy, George, and Royal City areas.
After he died, in 1992, they just kept on going.
“We were in the middle of the budding season, and we had to go off the next day and get budwood,” Dena recalled. “Life went on. That’s how we were raised. There was no looking back.”
“And he would have wanted that,” Carla added.
“I was nervous about how the employees would react to a different management style,” Dena said. “And I was very pleased that the team we had all stayed and we kept on going.”
To improve production, Dena gradually replanted the orchard with dwarfing rootstocks, which had by then been proven hardy enough to survive the region’s winters. At its peak, the business was producing 50,000 bins of tree fruit and growing 750,000 trees annually.
Two years ago, the family decided to lease the orchard to Northern Fruit Company in East Wenatchee, and bud their last crop of nursery trees.
Gie, 80, says she’s ready to retire and do more travelling, with Antarctica on the agenda for next year. She’s travelled the globe on tree fruit tours, and Antarctica is the only continent she had no reason to visit.
“It’s broadened my horizons, and I have friends all over the world,” she said. “It’s just marvelous. I love to go different places.”
Carla, who has visited India with her church, Calvary Chapel Fellowship in Wenatchee, wants to spend more time doing overseas missionary work. She has also visited Ethiopia with World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization.
Dena, who has had two knee replacements, says she needs to do less physical work but will still be involved in the industry. She’s been active in nursery and tree fruit organizations in the Northwest and plans to remain a member of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission’s board.
“I love the industry, and I would like to give back to the industry everything I can,” she said.
Her husband, Manuel Ybarra, who is nursery manager, will keep busy as a wrestling coach. They have a 21-year-old son, Manny, who is at Boise State University in Idaho.
Last November, the family harvested their last 800,000 nursery trees—their biggest crop ever. “It was a great growing season, and the trees looked very good,” Carla said. “And it was a great piece of ground we grew them on.
“It’s nice to be able to go out strong,” she reflected. “We’re not going out because we’re having to. We made a choice. We’re finishing strong.” •