Tom Hattrup grows six pear varieties and focuses on the fresh market. Photo by Madeleine Warner
Harvest is a whirl at Tom Hattrup’s orchard. As soon as the Bartlett pears are picked, his crew does a first pick in three different blocks of Galas.
“Then when that scrambling’s done, we’ll run over and pick the d’Anjous that are on three different orchards, come back, and pick our second pick of Galas,” Hattrup relates. And so it continues seven days a week for about two months until his last Pink Lady apples are in the bin.
He has orchards at three locations within a four-mile radius at between 1,275 and 1,415 feet in elevation. Though it might complicate the logistics, having his acreage spread out helps reduce weather-related risk.
Back in 1985, when Tom took over part of his father’s farm in Moxee, near Yakima, Washington, all he had to worry about—apart from the alfalfa hay—was getting 60 acres of Red Delicious picked, a process that took two weeks.
But after a disastrous year for the Washington apple industry as a whole in 1987, Tom began replanting, to spread his risk. He now has seven apple varieties, six pear varieties, and two cherry varieties in his 160-acre orchard near Konnowac Pass and is a partner with his brother Joe in the Elephant Mountain Vineyards.
“My whole story can be summed up in one word: diversification,” he said.
Their father, Bob, moved to Moxee in the 1940s and began growing hops with their grandfather Louie Dufault. Bob and Louie diversified into row crops, cattle, and Red Delicious apples, expanding to 360 acres.
Divided the farm
When Bob retired in 1984, he divided the farmland between his three sons, Tom, Joe, and Larry. Each operated 100 acres independently, though they shared equipment. In 1994, when Larry got out of farming, Joe and Tom took over his parcels.
Some of the land is on a south-facing slope of Elephant Mountain where the microclimate is ideally suited to wine grapes, whereas land just over the peak, on the north slope, is better for tree fruits. Joe now focuses mainly on grapes, and Tom on tree fruits.
Most pear growers in the Yakima area grow fruit for processing, but Tom has had success in the fresh market.
“I made more money last year on pears than I did on apples,” he said. “Some years, it’s a pear year, and some years, it’s an apple year.”
Along with Gala, Jonagold, Red and Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Jazz, Fuji, and Pink Lady (Cripps Pink) apples, he still has 21 acres of Red Delicious. He planted a block of Scarlets in 1994.
“Not too many people were planting Reds then,” he recalled. But Hattrup believes there’s a place for the right Red Delicious, because packers and retailers still want them. He thinks supply and demand are coming into balance, now that the state’s production has dropped from more than 60 million boxes in the mid-1990s to closer to 30 million this year.
His Redchief Red Delicious are typy and well-colored because of the high elevation. “It’s the best thing I can grow here,” he said. “My Galas are as good as the next guy’s, but my Reds seem to be better.”
Ginger Gold, however, failed to live up to its promise. Prices were good at first, but as demand for the variety declined because of its lack of shelf life, returns dropped to little as $25 a bin. Tom grafted over his 4.5-acre block to early Fuji last spring.
He has 11 acres of the New Zealand variety Jazz. Tom said he likes the worldwide club marketing concept. Production will be limited, so prices should stay strong.
“I don’t expect it to stay at $50 a box forever, but it’s better than $9 a box,” he commented. “I tasted some apples prior to planting them, and they’re as good as anything else I grow as far as taste.”
He could have planted more, but decided against it because of the risk.
With Pink Lady, he stopped at a 1.5-acre test block. He saw problems other growers were having when the weather turned cold before the variety was harvested.
Instead of planting more late-maturing apples, he planted Sweetheart cherries.
As well as diversifying on the farm, Tom manages his marketing risks by sending his fruit to three or four different packers. “I just don’t like putting all your eggs in one basket,” he said.
Diversification has helped ease labor difficulties. Workers he hired in July to pick cherries stayed to thin pears and harvest other fruits. The vineyard is a big draw for workers, he said, because pickers like to pick from vines that are only chest high. He and his brother rotate their crews between their orchards and vineyards so that all the workers have an opportunity to pick grapes part of the time.
With a labor scarcity, it’s important to keep workers happy, treat them with respect, and find jobs to keep them busy, said Tom, who considers his employees part of his team. “I like their ideas. Details are not that important, but the timing of things has to be. As long as the job’s getting done, I let them do it.”
He depends heavily on his foreman, Bulmaro “Bomber” Garcia, who’s been with him for 25 years. “He’s my right arm. It’s amazing how we think alike. He cares about this place as much as I do.”
One day this summer, when it was too hot to work during the day, Garcia spent the evening spraying, not finishing work until 11:30 p.m.
The next day, Tom put a new hat and a bottle of wine on the lunch table for Garcia, to show his appreciation. “That’s okay, I love the job,” Garcia responded.
As well as farming, Hattrup is involved with community and agricultural groups. He is a member of the Moxee City Council, a member of Wine Yakima Valley, and a board member of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association.
He’s learned how critical it is to stay ahead of the competition—and the competition is not necessarily growers across the world, but fellow growers, he believes.
“I think the industry’s going to have a strong future, but I think you have to stay up with all the new varieties and techniques, and learn as much as you can, just to stay up with the Joneses,” he said.
“Of course, we’re competing globally, and that’s hard to measure on that level, but where I feel it more is just growers in the state. You have to be in the top third of the pools, and you have to stay there. You can’t make a mistake, and there’s lots of room for error. That’s the nature of the game.”