family background / Erica is a fourth-generation farmer with a degree in criminal justice and sits on the Blue Star Growers board of directors. Erica is the daughter of Vince and Lesa Bland.

grower/Dryden, Washington
business/Cozy Cove Orchard

How did you get your start?
It was fun growing up being part of the farm, and I’ll never forget the times when our crews would get together after harvest and play dominoes.

Some have been working with us since the 1980s. Having those returning crew members is like having extended aunts and uncles — it’s an incredible thing.

Most of my training is from my family on the farm. Nearly everyone worked in the orchard. It’s just a normal thing learning hands-on.

Did you plan to return to the farm?
When I went to school, my parents told me to work for someone else and learn other things. I always knew I’d come back to farming — I just didn’t know when.

When grandpa passed away, it just sort of happened for me and I decided to farm full time. Every year, I learn new things on the farm.

However, now that I’m sitting on the Blue Star Growers board of directors, I’m learning from other growers, from people who aren’t even at my warehouse. I’m learning from sales and learning from marketing trips.

What were the first lessons once you returned?
I learned quickly that owning and running your own place means that you’re paying for it. When you are working for family, you may see that packouts weren’t as good one year or the pruning work wasn’t as heavy as you should have done.

When you’re running your own farm, you realize that you are responsible for making those changes the next year. Especially when you see your difficulties shine through that affect your pocketbook, rather than just being the kid on the farm that gets to drive the tractors and do odd jobs. Those lessons are real.

What else are you learning?
My mom, being an accountant, has done all of our bookwork. It’s been a huge advantage to have her teach me how to manage your money with orcharding.

You don’t know if you’re going to make money that year, but you have to put money into that crop. I think I’m 10 steps ahead having her experience living in the house right next to me.

What’s challenged you the most?
One of my biggest challenges in the past couple of years has been joining the warehouse board of directors and trying to make the right decisions for all of the packing house’s growers.

It’s not just my family anymore. Everyone’s counting on us to make decisions, and it’s stressful. At home, it’s my stomping grounds where I know what I can do, but working with the warehouse has pushed me to break out of my box.

Why step out of the farm and into leadership roles?
Most of the Wenatchee Valley growers are pretty tight-knit. We all want to grow good fruit. We want a good price, but the past four years or so it’s been a real struggle for growers. We haven’t been making much money, and our costs continue to go up. I know our family has talked over several dinners, trying to figure out what we can do. We have to promote ourselves and step out there.

Because of that, I’m doing more marketing, doing “meet the grower” events with customers to share what happens on the farm and show people our crops come from a family-run farm — not big corporations. We’re just trying to make a living and continue this legacy, because we don’t want to see it die.

What advice do you have for young growers?
There are ways for young growers to learn how to grow good fruit, but I think what they’ll struggle with is learning about real costs and labor. Unfortunately, those aren’t things you can learn in school.

Even with programs to help someone start a farm, can they actually afford to run it? Young growers need to prioritize taking care of their crews. If you find some good people, you need to keep them around. All of ours are like family.

Another thing: I never would have known that pears would take me beyond my farm. I didn’t expect to be part of a national marketing campaign, to travel and give farm tours, podcasts and interviews — it’s all been incredible.

If this is what we need to do to promote our love of pears, then we’ll do what we can so others can love them too.

—TJ Mullinax