Cherries, with their sensitivity to rain at harvest time and market swings, are one of the riskiest and most volatile of tree fruit crops. John Carter may have lacked farming experience—especially with cherries—when he moved his family from southern California to Oregon 35 years ago, but he and wife, Karen, have quadrupled and diversified their fruit acreage, raised a family, and made grower friendships around the world.
In the early 1970s, the Carters began searching for a better place to raise three children than crowded, smoggy Los Angeles. John was part of a small engineering design group that worked to silence large gas engines, like those used in energy plants and airplanes, and he was ready to change careers. They liked southern Oregon’s Medford area, often visiting Karen’s parents who lived there, and almost purchased a pear orchard in the region. Instead, they bought an 80-acre cherry orchard in The Dalles, Oregon.
Karen said, “Our friends thought we were crazy for buying a farm. They told us we were wasting our education.” On the contrary, farming is very technical, said Karen, who does the farm’s accounting and keeps track of costs and efficiencies. “It was the best thing for our family.”
It turns out that John’s background in physics and engineering design was a good fit with agriculture. When he became an orchardist in 1975, he discovered a love for farming. “Something about farming clicked with me—to see things grow and the opportunity for you to have an impact on something.”
But it was industry research that really got John excited. Early on, he got involved in the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission and its research committee. “The research portion of the puzzle was something that matched my background,” he said. “The research programs were my real passion, and I focused in on what we could best do for the next generation.” His background in statistics enabled him to understand research lingo and delineate between statistical differences and anecdotal findings.
John credits Oregon State University Extension in the early years for advising the city slicker on what to do and when to do it. “Extension agent Jack Thienes held my hand and told me how to plant, prune, water, fumigate, and to watch what my neighbors were doing,” he said, adding that OSU provided him with solid horticultural building blocks.
Those building blocks have served him well in understanding the importance of pruning in cherries and keeping fruiting wood young. Through the years, he renovated and replanted, transitioning from processed to fresh-market cherry varieties and from 20-feet triangle spacings to more narrow plantings with 7.5 feet between trees and 15 feet between rows. His training system is the steep leader in most of his orchard, with some blocks trained to the central leader. Today, he produces about a dozen sweet cherry cultivars on four rootstocks (Mazzard, Gisela 6 and 12, and Krymsk 5), spanning the fresh market window from early to late season. And, he’s expanded the original 80-acre cherry orchard to about 350 acres of owned and leased ground, and diversified into apples.
He began planting apples in the 1980s in areas that weren’t conducive to growing quality cherries. Apples gave him a more diverse crop portfolio, but more importantly, enabled him to be more efficient with his work crews and keep skilled pruners on the payroll longer. Carter, one of the few growers in Wasco County to still have apples, grows Gala, Granny Smith, and Fuji. He pulled out the last of his Red Delicious ten years ago.
OSU Extension Educator for Wasco County Lynn Long said that John is one of the better growers in the area and does an excellent job of pruning and growing cherry trees to be productive for the long term. “The orchard he originally purchased was one of the worst in The Dalles,” Long said, adding that he often pointed it out as an example of what not to do when giving tours to visitors. That was before the Carters took ownership.
“John is an innovative grower and was one of the first to plant his own rootstock trial with several selections, including Krymsk,” said Long. “He’s not afraid to try new things. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.”
Long noted that John’s land is not in The Dalles Irrigation District and he must depend on creek water and wells. “In some years, John has struggled with production from not having enough water to irrigate his trees. But he’s persevered through difficult times, and he now has a young and productive orchard that’s well maintained and managed.”
Carter believes the keys to producing large, high quality fruit are pruning, plant nutrition, and soil health. He is always looking for ways to increase fruit quality and improve orchard efficiency, both of which usually have an immediate payback. For example, he added laser-controlled Agtec sprayers about ten years ago so that he sprays only trees and not open spaces, thereby reducing drift and saving in spray material costs.
He also monitors soil moisture through a Web-based computer system that provides accurate, real-time data for his orchard, a system now available to all growers in The Dalles and Hood River areas. Carter has participated for many years in an OSU research project studying mulches and protective barriers (straw, wood chips, and black weed mat cloth) as a way to conserve soil moisture.
“I do what some call voodoo agriculture. I apply compost teas to enhance the microbial populations in the soil,” he said, readily admitting that compost teas have not been widely researched and lack good field data because of the many variables involved in making and applying the teas. However, he believes that years of spraying herbicides and even sulfur have had a negative effect on the soil microbial populations, and he is working to enhance microbe activity and increase populations of beneficial bacteria, fungi, flagellates, amoebae, nematodes, and eventually, worms.
Carter applies aerobic compost teas to the orchard soil with a weed sprayer at least twice a year, though some needy blocks receive a few more applications. He routinely sends soil samples to a private laboratory in Corvallis, Oregon, to monitor his progress. He also sends samples of his compost teas to the lab for quality control purposes.
He adds compost to the orchard floor to build soil organic matter and has tried growing a green manure cover crop in place to mow and blow under the tree row. Both practices have drawbacks—transportation and handling costs of compost make it expensive, and he hasn’t found a side mower that puts the green manure exactly where he wants it.
By tracking soil test results from the last 25 years, he has seen improvement in his soil health and fertility, soil organic matter, and soil porosity and tilth, and he has observed an increase in soil water-holding capacity.
Cherry growing is full of ups and downs, profitable years and not so profitable. John and Karen have endured the down times that come with farming. They made it through a bad frost in the early years that resulted in John supplementing the farm income by teaching at a community college; they made it through the apple Alar years—their first commercial pick of Red Delicious was the same season that television’s 60 Minutes Alar pesticide segment aired (February 1989); and they made it through a chaotic season in 2003 when John was hospitalized for esophageal cancer and their sons returned home (and continue to come home) to help with cherry harvest.
But John is not simply a survivor. He has transformed an old, outdated cherry orchard into a productive and successful tree fruit operation that is well positioned to meet future cherry industry challenges.