Monica Libbey, Young Grower from Manson, Washington
TJ Mullinax // October 3, 2016
family background/ Both sides of Monica’s family have long histories farming in the Chelan Valley, in Manson and long ago in Stehekin, Washington. Her parents are Rocky Libbey and Christy (Buckner) Libbey. age / 33 crops / Apples, cherries and pears business / Rocky and Christy Orchard
How did you get your start? I grew up in Manson, living on orchard property my entire life. I went off to college at Western Washington University.
Growing up, I never thought I’d want to be an orchardist. I worked all the summer jobs helping out in the orchard and I thought it was terribly boring, so I got my environmental policy degree and started working for the City of Wenatchee.
At that point I decided I didn’t like the office. I wanted to be doing something in agriculture.
Eventually it finally clicked — “Why not just come back home and work in the orchard?” I’ve been back four years now.
Why return to the farm? There were a lot of different factors. One, I really love being outside.
It’s good that I don’t mind being on a computer because nowadays there’s a lot of computer work required of orcharding. Two, I think agriculture is incredibly important and provides a value to society.
Three, I loved growing up in Manson and Lake Chelan, and I’ve been a little saddened by what I see as a trend happening here.
A lot of the orchards are getting pulled out and getting turned into 5-acre houses, second homes. So, I kept thinking, how can this trend change?
What better way to try to put my effort into stopping this trend than by diving into my heritage? The only way I could do that was by coming back to farm.
If the generations to come can come in and buy the orchards and continue farming, that’ll make me very happy.
How did you make the transition from desk work to agriculture? Coming back and managing an orchard is much different from the jobs that I did as a kid. Now that I’ve been here a few years, dad has been sharing some duties.
When I got here, he immediately handed over all of the food safety, L&I employee documentation and paperwork to me, because that’s not where his heart is. He’s very old-school and just wants to farm.
The simple answer is that my job is to learn what my dad does so that he doesn’t have to do it all the time.
I’ve been trying to learn about keeping crews going, the spray program going, purchasing the sprays, all of the horticultural practices, the new plantings and their spacing, fertigation, equipment and maintenance, loading the truck, and all the little stuff that he has done.
What are your current challenges? One of the more intriguing things I’ve been learning is our chemical thinning program. It’s a science; however, there’s an art to it, too.
Every block is different. It’s not like all of our Galas are necessarily the same. Our Red Delicious blocks are 30-plus years old, yet they differ from block to block.
Dad knows the differences, because he’s been farming them for so long. Right now, the chemical thinning is one program that I’m still trying to glean information about.
The how, when and what he decides to do is so full of variables.
What lessons have you learned? One golden rule that a lot of young farmers have to learn — including myself, because I thought I knew the rule — is about weed spraying.
You’ve got to make sure there’s absolutely no breeze whatsoever when you weed spray. When it gets up into the canopy it’s systemic and it can do some pretty bad things.
My first year I did some weed spraying and I knew the rule, don’t spray when it’s windy, and I thought I was OK. Then a month later I see problems, even the next year I can see it on the low hanging limbs.
So that was a great lesson learned. It’s a constant reminder now as I drive by I think, “Yeah, you’ve got to be really careful with that weed spraying.”
Do you have any tips for young growers? I try to keep a daily journal of what we’re doing, or when we’ve calibrated something, or when we do certain things through the season.
Not only that, I note other things that are going on, like, “it was 90 degrees last week.” Those notes are going to help me going forward.
In my short time, I’ve already been looking back at my first year, so that I’m not having to reinvent the wheel each season. I’ve got a quick reference because there’s a lot to remember.
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