Dillon Luebber, a young grower from Malaga, Washington
TJ Mullinax // Mar 8, 2017
family background / Dillon was raised southeast of Wenatchee, Washington, along the Columbia River by Jan and Fern Luebber. He obtained an economics degree with an emphasis in agriculture from Wenatchee Valley College and Washington State University and now works on the family farm and with Stemilt Growers on their field staff. grower / Malaga, Washington age / 27 crops / Cherries, apples and pears business / Luebber Orchards
How did you get your start?
Growing up with two older sisters working the farm, I had a general idea about what I wanted to do as a career. There was a block of cherries where we learned how to change hand lines.
I graduated to riding the four-wheelers, then operating the tractors. To this day, my sisters are better at backing up a trailer than most of my guy friends, which is great. Over the years, I moved up and got a taste of managing the workers, crews and different job tasks.
In high school I got to hire some of my school buddies. It was a good work experience for them and for me.
Before the season I had to tell them to not take anything I say personally because this is a job. I might bark at you from time to time, but it’s for your own safety.
Some of the jobs I’ve done aren’t that fun, but they’ve molded me into the character that I am today.
What do you enjoy most about farming?
One of the things I enjoy the most is during cherry harvest. It can kind of turn into a zoo quickly.
Out in Malaga, we aren’t farming flat ground; it’s more steep, four-wheel-drive terrain.
We’re privileged to be in the growing region around Malaga, especially for cherries.
We’re trying new things, too. This past year, we applied Apogee to our old Bings and it worked out great.
It held the new growth down, allowed a lot more light into the tree and budded up nicely. It’s the little things like that make running a small farm enjoyable.
What things have you learned while working with larger farms?
Watching what they do and how they farm has been a big help to me. It’s pretty crucial nowadays to know what the large farms are doing because of how many acres are currently being planted.
Planting so many trees per acre combined with all of the trellis work is expensive. It helps you realize that you’ve got to ask yourself the questions like, should I grow certain apple varieties?
Because there’ll probably be another sport of that apple with better color in the future.
Should I put in a trellis with a taller pole every other one so I can possibly do a netting of some sort in the future?
Maybe down the road you might want to topwork that block into something different, rather than pull the whole block out and start over?
As a small farmer, you can’t afford that. It just doesn’t financially exist for smaller growers. My pockets aren’t that deep.
What challenges does your farm face?
Areas we need to focus on for the future are centered on labor and weather risk factors, things like freezing out or getting too much rain in the cherries.
A lot of our densities in the cherry orchards are mostly 18 feet-by-12 feet and of course 20 feet-by-20 feet. I hope we can get more trees planted 6 feet-by-14 feet in the ground.
That’ll be 518 trees to the acre, which will be pushing almost 8 tons to the acre and you’ve only got to grow 30 pounds per tree. Then again, those 30 pounds are going to be big cherries.
Doing modifications like that will help protect yourself from a market standpoint with big fruit and have an orchard that’s attractive to enough for pickers to work for you.
How has your education helped on the farm?
My degree in economics in agriculture has really helped me by working with the numbers. It’s all trees per acre, it’s leaders per acre, it’s buds per tree, it’s all the efficiencies that I can find.
And a lot of this work is applying fourth- or fifth-grade math, but anyone who wants to dive into the numbers can put together Lagrangian problems using simple, partial derivatives to find break-even points for their farm.
Doing that kind of math takes some of the guesswork out of orcharding. The industry is pretty scary sometimes.
Growers really need to be site-specific with what you’re growing and how you’re growing it. You really need to ask yourself what the real cost is to produce one bin.
From bud to bin, knowing what each block should produce. That training in college has helped me out, and it’s helped me in my career.
What are you looking to do to modernize your farm?
Some of the things we’re looking into doing on our farm are more of the two-leader, down-the-row-style planting.
Right off the bat, it cuts your trees per acre in half, which is a huge cost savings for us. With trellises, we’re looking to go more vertical systems.
Basically, we’re starting to put in more pears and with more pears we’re leaning toward Stefano Musacchi’s bi-ax down the row — three or four wire, something simple.
The reason for doing that is to improve your fruit maturity throughout, and storability will be more consistent. For us, it’ll help us move down the road to using mechanical pruners, hedgers attached to a tractor.
Per person, a picker can harvest more fruit on a system like that then they can on the old dinosaur vase style D’Anjou trees.
Those trees require a lot of work. People look at these older systems and it has “work” written all over them, then they look at a block that’s short, nice and picks all the same — everyone likes those orchards.
Why do you enjoy farming?
At the end of each day, I like what I’m doing. The job isn’t easy but you learn a lot.
This kind of job has its irreplaceable moments that you simply cannot get back in town. I’m really proud to be part of this industry, and I hope to play a strong role in it.
TJ Mullinax joined Good Fruit Grower as digital producer and photojournalist in 2013. He photographs and edits visual stories for the print magazine and online publishing spaces. Along with editorial production, TJ develops and maintains the magazine’s digital products. -- Follow the author: Phone: (509) 853-3519 -- Email