Casey Corr

Casey Corr

Sixteen times a year, Good Fruit Grower’s cover shows a gorgeous photograph or painting of something related to the fruit industry. It could be a closeup of an apple, a winter orchard crusted in ice, a vineyard near sunset, or cherry trees in bloom. But once a year, we do something different. We put the emphasis on people.

In this issue, our cover presents the winner of the magazine’s prestigious Grower of the Year award. This year, brothers Mike and Craig O’Brien of Prosser, Washington, were selected by the magazine’s Advisory Board for their innovative growing practices and contributions to the industry.

The O’Briens are the 18th recipients of the award. They will be honored this month in Kennewick at the 110th annual meeting of the Washington State Horticultural Association.

After the O’Briens were selected for the award, I drove southeast from Yakima in late September to meet them and to see the family farm that had drawn visitors from as far away as Chile, New Zealand and South America. The word had gone out about the brothers’ passion for increasing tree density while maintaining fruit quality. I found them incredibly generous with their time, warm, humble and enthusiastic about growing. I liked them immediately. I wish city people who only buy fruit in supermarkets could meet growers like them. The O’Briens are relentless about quality. As we walked through their orchard, I noticed Craig would pause to clip a branch or pull an item that had failed his exacting inspection. Can you taste excellence? Try an apple from their C & M Orchards.

The O’Briens may be distinctive, but they are not unusual in the tree fruit industry. Last year’s Grower of the Year, Jeff Colombini of Lodi, California, came across in the same way: highly intelligent, sophisticated in farming practices and energetic in teaching others what he’s learned.

Another common characteristic of good growers is resilience in dealing with challenges from weather, market vagaries or personal circumstance.

Good Fruit Growers of the Year 2014 Craig O'Brien and Mike O'Brien at C & M Orchards.

Good Fruit Growers of the Year 2014 Craig O’Brien and Mike O’Brien at C & M Orchards. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

That brings to mind another grower described in this month’s issue—José Ramirez of Royal City, Washington. José knew hardship as a child growing up in a village in Mexico, where he rode a donkey nine miles a day in order to attend school. Editor Geraldine Warner tells the story of how he left Mexico at age 17 and became a strawberry picker in California, later moving to Royal City, Washington, where he eventually became orchard manager at Stein-Manzana and owner of his own 80-acre farm. José went from employee to employer, and is a recognized industry leader.

Another grower who overcame great challenges was the late Jerry Haak of Sunnyside, Washington. He died a year ago this month at age 50. At age 19, he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a severe form of arthritis that affects the joints and the eyes. Doctors predicted he would be wheelchair bound by the age of 35, but he continued to walk throughout his life, though with difficulty. He felt pain most days, but he wasn’t a complainer, nor was he defined by pain. Jerry got more done with his time than most people could only imagine. He worked as an orchardist, field horticulturalist, board member, philanthropist, and partner in 17 business ventures. He is sorely missed.

In December, growers will be gathering in Washington State and Michigan at trade shows to hear about research and best practices in horticulture. At both events, our industry will take time to honor growers who make a difference, like the O’Briens, José Ramirez,  Jerry Haak and Harold Thome, winner of this year’s Distinguished Service Award from the Michigan State Horticultural Society.

This industry is all about growing the world’s best fruit, but the people are pretty amazing as well.


Look for our live, expanded coverage of the Washington Hort Show on our Twitter and Facebook pages and on our website, Watch for photos, videos and comments posted daily. If you are attending the show, stop by our booth near the convention registration table and enter to win a new Apple iPad Mini. •