family background / Conor grew up in a large Yakima Valley farming family growing juice grapes, learning organic methods and helping expand the farm’s apple acreage. He is the son of Carl and Jeannie Kilian and grandson of Ervin and Sharon Kilian.
age / 22
crops / Apples and grapes
business / Kilian Farms

Conor Kilian, a young grower from Sunnyside, Washington, on January 16, 2018. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)How did you get your start?
The youngest I can remember was when I was about 7 years old, doing irrigation, riding 4-wheelers, spreading bins between the pears — seems like I’ve been doing that ever since.

Being homeschooled, I remember hurrying through school work at 3 o’clock in the morning to get it done so we could be outside, getting a full day’s work with dad.

There’s a lot of work to be done on a family farm — but partly because I wanted to do the work — otherwise, why get up that early, right?

Has your family ties helped you start out?
My grandpa had four sons who all farm in the area, so we cooperate a lot. The family works with Welches growing juice grapes.

Grandpa always had apples on the side and it was something that paid the bills. My dad grew up working with those crops, but apples continued to be a side part of the farm.

When I was 14, my siblings and I planted 2 acres of Honeycrisp that were started organic. That was my first step into the apple industry. Now, I’m starting to lease my own ground, and those family connections have been helpful.

What kind of challenges have you faced on the farm?
When I work with our juice grapes, I typically go to dad or grandpa because they know how to handle those fields. I personally enjoy the apple side of the business.

Learning high-density systems, the associated tips, pruning techniques, thinning and picking — I’ve enjoyed it and dad lets me do it.

One of the challenges though: all our apples are certified organic and learning that initial wave of paperwork was a test.

We had a few noncompliant issues to resolve starting out. Now we know if we have our paperwork right, then it’ll be fun. One of our new challenges is switching 100 acres of juice grapes to organic. We’re expecting more labor and time-intensive work.

The major issue making the switch is weed control. We’re currently using a flamer, but we’re looking at other control options like a weed badger type of machine.

What organic apple challenges have you faced?
With organic apples, we’re dealing with pests like codling moth. I’m looking at a bug zapper light that’s powered by a solar panel.

Hopefully it’ll kill some moths this year because we’ve had a little bit of a problem in the past. So far, we’ve just used the organic sprays and I’ve learned that timing it right is the biggest issue.

The past couple years have been very hot. When we use our overhead cooling to deal with sunburn, we end up washing off our morning sprays in the afternoon when the cooling system runs.

For us, consistency and timing has been a big thing.

Have you found other solutions to reduce foliar inputs?
We’re getting into the sticky traps and learning about parasitoid wasps — most anything that will allow us to take a more natural approach to pest issues.

Once you get into spraying every other week, it can get pretty spendy. We put up a fair amount of pheromone strips in the spring when codling moth are the most active, too.

How are you changing the farm?
I learned a lot with the Honeycrisp block, but it’s been fun progressing beyond that.

Now, getting drawn for the Cosmic Crisp lottery has put the nail in the coffin whether I’ll follow grandpa and dad with juice grapes or go forward with apples.

I’m looking forward to producing my first crop of Cosmic Crisps; they are starting their second leaf this spring and I’m doing everything I can to learn about the variety.

It’s a variety that has so many different tendencies to understand. The nice thing about Cosmic Crisp is its ability to self-thin — it drops to singles by itself.

I hope it’s going to be a good variety to manage, because I don’t know it all. My dad and grandpa understand older varieties and systems, but once we start talking about high density and the necessary pruning techniques, it’s totally different than the older ways.

I’m relying on people who’ve done that type of work before, and that knowledge has been key for me. With the Cosmic Crisp launch, I’ve found Washington State University’s grower network, field days, seminars and all the info very helpful, where I can make educated decisions about how I’ll move forward.

For me, this will be fun and I’m going to enjoy doing it. I’m drawn now so I’ve got a golden opportunity — it’s quite the blessing.

-by TJ Mullinax