Eladio Gonzales, a young grower from Selah, Washington
TJ Mullinax // April 20, 2016
background / Eladio, a second-generation farmer from the upper Yakima Valley, worked alongside his father, Miguel Gonzales, in orchards and now manages several test orchards in Naches, Washington.
age / 32 crops / Apples, cherries, wine grapes business / Orchard manager of G.S. Long test orchards
How did you get your start?
I got into the industry as a little kid watching my parents working in orchards. Both migrated from Mexico to the U.S. in the early ’80s. Working in the ag business is all they’ve known.
My siblings and I would be out with them helping out doing little things like moving water jugs and food for them. I was in and out of the orchard all the time because I loved it. Growing up I always said I wanted to be like my dad and do the work.
Now that I am, I know I wouldn’t do anything different now.
What were some of your early challenges in your career?
I couldn’t afford going to college to get a horticulture degree, so I needed to pay attention to farmers around me to learn what the trees were doing.
I remember one time we had a bunch of young trees to train and it was cold as heck out there. It felt like it was 16 degrees with the wind chill, and my dad said, “You know how to do it. Go get an apron and a ball of yarn and tie with the rest of us.”
I didn’t expect any freebies starting out. For me everything was so interesting and new. I paid attention to all of the little details. Being able to learn from other growers helped me figure out how to cope with what Mother Nature throws at you on the farm.
What changes do you see in the future orchard?
Nowadays you’ve got different phone apps using GPS to help set your orchard. Drought is going to be a future issue, and we’re working to waste less water, like electrically operated valves that are triggered by a computer to zone in on your dry spots.
These valves and manifolds will help you dial in what you’re putting in the ground so you aren’t irrigating the old-style way of watering for 12- or 16-hour sets.
Now you can change sprinkler heads to micro-sprinklers that can help you water in half the time, or put water probes in the ground to help minimize issues. Everything in the industry is changing. Back in the day we were farming 18-foot rows. Now we have these new high-density trellis systems.
New trellis systems mean more trees in the ground per acre; it’s amazing to see these systems produce. Sometimes you hear about farms that are picking 160 to 170 bins per acre, when they were only able to produce 60 to 80 bins per acre on a lucky day on the older orchards. That’s just how the industry is evolving.
What are some things you are bringing to the orchard as a manager?
If I can help make people aware of work-related risks, it will help cut overall labor costs. When you train someone about something as basic as wearing safety glasses in the field, things like that will go a long way.
You never know when you’ll get poked in the eye and if they aren’t wearing glasses, they’ll be down for maybe the rest of the year. What does that do to everyone’s pocketbook?
What would you tell younger growers?
There’s so much to learn in the ag business. I love it. In this career you’re always outnumbered with the duties that you’ve got to get done out in the orchard.
You never know what the day’s going to bring until you show up at the farm when Mother Nature gives you a rain storm or a hail storm, or you were hit by frost because you weren’t out in time.
However, being able to see the end result and watching your fruit go to the warehouse is a fulfilling experience.
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