family background/Ryan is an operations manager at the nursery. He grew up working various jobs in the agriculture industry, eventually joining the nursery in 2014. Ryan is the third generation in agriculture and the son of Robyn and Stan Johnson.
grower/Harrah, Washington
crops/Apple trees
business/Mike & Brian’s Nursery

Ryan Johnson, a young grower in Harrah, Washington, on January 29, 2019. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)How did you get your start?
Having a good work ethic was the first thing I learned. I started out working at a produce farm when I was teenager and we’d be working what seemed to be a week straight to get the crops out.

We’d get an order, pick it, pack it and deliver that order so quickly. The work was just nonstop. Doing that work when I was young, I learned to enjoy hard work. I learned not to work just for the paycheck.

The second thing I learned in ag was the people-side of the industry. There’s a lot of people involved, and you’ve got to treat everyone with respect, whether it’s your boss or someone just starting.

Why work for a nursery?
If you like the tree fruit industry, yet you don’t like waking up at any hour for frost control, working for a nursery is the way to go. I truly enjoy doing what I do.

What I enjoy about the nursery is how many different tasks I need to do at the same time. From managing all these new varieties, then all the different rootstocks, it just seems like you’re growing an infinite number of combinations for farms.

Every day there’s something going on, such as one day there’s truckloads of trees coming into the nursery and then a lot going out the next. From raising the trees and then learning how many different ways a tree can die, I enjoy how much I get to learn in this career.

What is it like managing a nursery?
Operating a nursery comes down to improving how to manage all the little tasks. We have the little task of picking branches off of trees to a certain height, or stripping roots suckers off, or when the tree grows then we need to tie the trees by hand to bamboo, so it grows straight.

There are a lot of little tasks. On the scale of things we do, if we could touch a tree two less times, oh my, we could save so much.

That’s how small we are measuring, down to how many times each tree must be touched in that tree’s lifetime. We have two years with that tree.

The process is basically from planting, growing of the rootstock, then we graft the tree, bud it, then we grow the tree over the next year — and during that time the tree gets touched a lot.

If there are ways that I can save two seconds per tree, I could save thousands of dollars in labor. As a nursery we need to minimize how much we handle that tree while getting superb quality.

We cannot risk growing a bad tree. All of these little things add up. I don’t need to make a big change to make a big difference.

What challenges and solutions do you see nurseries taking on?
Europe is way ahead of us in finding labor solutions, in my opinion, at least 10 years ahead. They’ve been fighting labor shortages longer than we have.

What I’m really excited to see in the next 10 to 15 years is the possibility of robotics or labor-saving technology to help nurseries. We aren’t growing anything all that complicated. We’re growing a high-quality tree in a short amount of time.

We pay attention to ensuring the tree is of a certain caliper, that it’s straight, etc., and robotics may help revolutionize this industry. Another big challenge is dealing with a shortage of young, intelligent and capable people that can step into management positions.

There’re all of these ranches out there that need people to run their farms, and there’s not enough young people who’re qualified to make that jump. I feel that if you are young, capable and intelligent and willing to do the work, there’s an endless amount of jobs in ag.

What would you tell other young growers?
One of the biggest challenges that a young person faces in agriculture: There’s a lot of anecdotal stories saying that “small farms can’t make it” or “there’s no opportunities in agriculture, only big companies” that may push people away.

Those stories aren’t all true. When young people buy into a no-hope mentality, it becomes the largest obstacle for the industry.

Yes, there’s a lot of consolidation going on in the fruit industry right now. But with that comes an endless amount of opportunity. I’ve done pretty well at it starting out and my farm’s about as small as you can get.

– by TJ Mullinax