Cherry grower Norm Gutzwiler of Malaga, Washington, has been named Good Fruit Grower of the Year for 2006. He received the award during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual convention in December.
Norm Gutzwiler retired last year, meaning that he now has just one job instead of two. For 33 years, Gutzwiler held a “day job” as a horticulturist advising growers, and a second job running his own orchard. At busy times of the year, he might be on the road by 5 a.m. and not get back until 9 p.m. Some days, he’d be up early in the morning to spend a couple of hours spraying his orchard before he went to work.
“There were times when it got rough, and the hours got long,” he said. “I would think about quitting the day job, but I never thought about selling the orchard. That was always my passion.”
Gutzwiler, 59, grew up on a cherry, apple, and apricot orchard at Wenatchee Heights, Washington, where his maternal grandparents, Bill and Stella Jagla, who were Polish immigrants, came to homestead in 1905. He knew even in high school that he wanted to be a farmer. He attended Wenatchee Valley College, but rather than be drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, he joined the Marine Corps and spent 14 months in Vietnam as helicopter crew chief.
He flew 53 missions and earned the Silver Star and Purple Heart. But all the time, he was thinking about going back to college to finish his studies in agriculture and pursuing his dream of owning an orchard. “It was always a dream, and dreams do come true,” he said.
In 1972, after college, he joined Chamberlin Distributing Company in Wenatchee as a field horticulturist. Two years later, he joined the field staff of Skookum, and stayed with the cooperative when it merged in 1995 with Blue Bird, Inc.
Meanwhile, he leased orchards in the Wenatchee area, and bought his first acreage in 1977. After his father, Leo, died in 1978, he bought most of the family orchard at Wenatchee Heights, which is at an elevation of 2,350 feet and is in one of the latest cherry areas in the state. He later bought orchards at Rock Island and Malaga, which are at elevations of between 650 and 800 feet.
The range in elevation spreads the market risk and the risk of weather-related damage, and provides the diversification he needs to stay in business, he said. “At one time, my diversification was to have apples, pears, and cherries, but I decided I’d sooner be in the cherry business and started looking around and found these other orchards, and that’s been the best diversification I’ve ever had.”
Gutzwiler thrives on what he calls the “cherry rush.”
“When you get to harvest, it’s rush a rush. You go and go, and every grower out there is like the Energizer Bunny. You don’t think about how worn out you are until after harvest is over. The fruit tastes good, and you’re out there with the workers, and everything you’ve done all year is culminating with it being harvested and sold. It’s just wonderful.”
Picking begins in mid-June with the early Chelan cherry at Rock Island and continues with Bing, Rainier, Sonata, and Skeena, ending in August with Sweetheart at Wenatchee Heights. Two years ago, he planted a new variety called Sunset Bing, which should ripen two or three days later than Sweetheart, in mid-August. The variety was a limb mutation of Bing discovered by Bob Brown at Wenatchee Heights. Though the fruit is similar to Bing and is large and firm, it matures a full three weeks later.
Gutzwiler has always been eager to try new varieties and rootstocks. As he replanted the family orchard, removing old Lambert trees, he created a 2.5 acre test plot to try out new and unnamed varieties. He likes change and experimentation.
He was an early adopter of the Gisela rootstocks and found that Gisela 6 works best at Wenatchee Heights, though not in the sandier soils at Rock Island. He keeps the trees small, training them with two central leaders growing in a V shape to allow good light penetration. As well as being worker friendly, he thinks the system will be compatible with mechanical harvesting.
He considers Sweetheart to be a good cherry if it’s produced properly so that it has good size and eating quality. “You have to be willing to prune hard and allow them to stay on the tree until they’re fully mature,” he said. “It’s a cherry that gets red early. It’ll be red for two weeks before it’s ready to pick.”
He still likes Bing, though. “Bing can be a great cherry,” he said. “It tastes good, and it ships good, and the consumer enjoys that cherry very much when it’s picked properly.”
As Washington’s cherry production climbs, growers will have to focus on producing quality cherries, he said, and that means producing cherries that are not only large, but are crunchy and sweet, with a good luster.
“I believe we have to get past the idea that a large cherry is a quality cherry,” he said. “It needs to be large for eye appeal, but what we need for a quality cherry is firmness and high soluble solids so that the consumer will come back time and time again to buy that fruit.”
Gutzwiler applies gibberellic acid to all his cherries—including the early varieties. It delays harvest by three to five days, but it results in a larger and firmer cherry.
“I won’t pick my cherries red,” he said. “I pick them when there’s the maximum maturity. I leave them on the tree, even in my early locations. We have to have that quality if we’re going to have the consumer coming in for second and third purchases of the fruit.”
Gutzwiler does not foresee retiring from cherry growing. His son, Jake, is a partner in the Rock Island orchard, and one of his three daughters has expressed interest in joining the orchard operation, but Gutzwiler said he wouldn’t force any of his children to be involved.
“Being a cherry grower or a farmer of any kind is a labor of love,” he said. “You have to enjoy what you’re doing. It’s not always kind to a person.”
If in the future he decides to scale back and let his children take over, he thinks he’ll continue to farm the five acres at his home in Malaga. “I just don’t see any reason to stop,” he said.