Aristeo Maldonado of Tonasket, Washington, received EQIP funds to update his irrigation system.
When apple prices tumbled in 1998, just a year after he bought an orchard, Aristeo Maldonado knew what he had to do.
His orchard at Tonasket, Washington, had only Red and Golden Delicious trees, so he began to replant. He had seen growers in Wenatchee who were already diversifying.
"Everybody called me loco, because I started pulling out the orchard and planting new trees at high densities," he recalled.
The previous orchard owner was particularly alarmed to see him pushing over the trees that had served him well for more than 50 years. "Later, people said I was right because I started diversifying earlier than them," Maldonado said. "Now, I will be able to survive."
Maldonado grew up in Veracruz, Mexico. He earned a degree in philosophy and began studying theology with the intention of becoming a priest. To earn money for his studies, he took a year off and taught math and science. His future wife, Evelia, was one of his students. Later, he worked at sugar cane factories in Mexico, but when they closed because of political problems, he and his wife emigrated to the United States, and he became an orchard worker. While pruning trees in an orchard in Wenatchee, Washington, he fell off a ladder, damaging his spine. He was paralyzed for a year and couldn’t work for eight years.
In 1997, he obtained a guaranteed loan from the Farm Service Agency to buy his own orchard in Tonasket. He liked the place, and he liked the price, which was much lower than for orchards in Wenatchee. It came with a one-bedroom house, which was a squeeze when all their seven sons and three daughters were at home during the summers. The bank wanted to loan the family money for a larger home, but the Maldonados declined at first because of the debt.
Aristeo said when his children weren’t at school, they had to work all day in the orchard in any kind of weather, which they disliked. That experience motivated them to further their education. All but the three youngest, who are still at home, have gone to college, and five have master’s degrees. Two joined the U.S. Air Force to get scholarships.
His eldest son, Rene, 34, owns a neighboring pear orchard but is studying for a doctorate at Arizona State University and only comes to the orchard during vacations. Two other sons, Ulises and Victor, also own and lease orchards nearby. Ulises, who is a corrections officer, is earning money from the orchard so he can go to law school.
"I feel very, very proud of my family," Maldonado said.
The family members own or lease about 175 acres of orchard and farm them together. Maldonado, who is still disabled, is limited to light work, but says the orchard is an important part of his life. "It’s something I’m able to do every day, and in order to be able to feel proud of myself, I need to produce something and not depend on others."
His 42-acre orchard now has cherries, apples, and pears. The cherries include Sunset Bing and Selah. The apples include Gala, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Cameo, Braeburn, and Fuji, but no Red Delicious and only a few Golden Delicious.
But orchard renovation comes at a price, and part of that is the cost of being out of production for a time. Both Aristeo and Rene have secured grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to take conservation measures at the orchard that they otherwise couldn’t have afforded. EQIP provides funding to farmers on a competitive basis.
Aristeo said their orchards are close to the river, and the EQIP program has helped them take measures to protect the water. Both the funds and the advice have been valuable.
"When they came and gave us ideas, we said, ‘This is great. We can do a lot of things with the money and the resources that are available.’ We need to be good human beings, and we need to save the area. For that reason, we need to keep the natural resources without damage. Now, we have an opportunity to take care of what we have."
The funds have helped them improve their irrigation systems, for example. Aristeo changed from impact sprinklers with old nozzles to microsprinklers. Some parts of the orchard had wood pipe. He’s also monitoring soil moisture to know when and how much to irrigate.
The old system applied water unevenly and caused erosion. As a result, some trees got less water than others and produced small fruit. "Now, the irrigation is very uniform," he said. "We’re going to save water and get better fruit and make things a little easier."
Maldonado’s contract provides incentives for him to use mating disruption for codling moth control, in order to reduce pesticide use. This year, he applied a full cover spray of Assail (acetamiprid), and pest management consultant Naná Simone of Wenatchee, Washington, helped him monitor with traps. He needed to make another application of pesticides only in two small areas of the orchard where moths were found. Besides saving money, this approach should improve pest control.
In addition, they have planted Australian pines along the shore as a buffer.
To reduce bird damage to cherries, Maldonado will provide raptor poles, in the hope of scaring off the smaller birds.
His orchard is fenced to prevent deer damage, but the deer travel around the orchard and across a road to get to the river to drink. To reduce the number of deer killed on the road, he will build water guzzlers, so the deer don’t need to go to the river.
Maldonado said the EQIP program has helped the family afford to make improvements, despite the loss of income caused by their orchard renovation program. "We’re not able to pay for everything," he said. "In four to five years when the trees get bigger and the cash flow will be better, we’ll be able to pay, but for now, without EQIP, we would not be able."
Sometimes, Hispanic orchardists are reluctant to join government programs because of all the paperwork and their limited English skills, but Maldonado said it is worth taking the time to apply and the Natural Resources Conservation Service has Spanish-speaking staff to help.
"Sometimes, it’s difficult to say, ‘I don’t know how to read and write,’" he said, "but I would encourage everybody."