Apple growers in western Washington are realizing that their future does not lie in selling their apples through major packers to the wholesale market.
“Western growers can no longer sustain themselves by loading trucks of Jonagolds and sending them over to central Washington,” said Alan Merritt of Bow near Washington’s Puget Sound. “It’s time to return to our old plan—direct marketing.”
Today, the successful orchard in Skagit County, where Merritt farms, is an efficient, medium- to high-density pedestrian orchard organized for ease of harvest that markets new varieties and the farm experience to people in the region. It is building a connection between the grower and the consumer. Almost every kind of farm in Skagit County—from potatoes and other vegetables to fruit—does some form of direct marketing.
Merritt said he is focusing on value-added farming with diverse products. He’s growing corn, pumpkins, and cut flowers, along with apples and pears. Jonagold, Gravenstein, and Honeycrisp dominate his apple plantings. He has ten acres of certified organic Jonagold, and a packing line where he packs Gravenstein and Jonagolds for local stores.
At his farm store, he sells 30 fruit varieties from mid-August until Christmas. He also sells pies, doughnuts, cider, hard cider, and gifts.
He has a U-pick operation and offers educational tours and a harvest festival. “People are yearning for experiences like visiting a real farm,” he said. “It’s not just about the fresh food connection, but how a working farm operates and sustains itself.”
Merritt said his finite resources, time, and money are a frustration, along with insufficient knowledge about how to penetrate new markets. For him and his wife, Rose, there is no life beyond work. “Work is pervasive,” he said.
On the plus side, farmers can set their own prices. His wife tells him that low prices give a perception of low quality, so he should charge more. He sells his good apples at $1 a pound and culls for 65 cents, which people are happy to pay.
Merritt said he sees opportunities for growers in central Washington to offer direct sales of soft fruits, because of renewed interest in community-supported agriculture products and farmers’ markets. He suggests growers band together to promote themselves, like members of the Cascade Foothills Association have in north central Washington.