im and Rena Doornink of Parker, Washington, have been named Good Fruit Growers of the Year for 2009 by Good Fruit Grower magazine.
The award is made annually to a grower or family who is innovative and inspiring, focuses on growing quality fruit, and contributes to the tree fruit industry as a whole.
Jim, who has been chair of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission for the past 12 years, is known as an industry leader and strategist who has his sights set firmly on the future.
“He very much looks to the future and tries to keep his eyes on the ultimate prize, which is grower profitability, but he’s willing to take risks,” noted Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Research Commission.
A love of both farming and science runs in the Doornink family. Jim’s grandfather Marion, originally a dairy farmer in Wisconsin, lost his cow herd to tuberculosis in the 1920s and discovered the Yakima Valley while subsequently working as a truck driver. He moved his family there and eventually bought a pear orchard at Zillah. Jim’s father, Glenn, paid his way through medical school by working at the orchard and became a general practitioner. In 1956, Glenn and Marion bought the orchard in Wapato that the Doorninks own and operate today. Glenn bought the orchard partly because he wanted his children to have the opportunity to experience farming, which was near and dear to his heart. He practiced medicine but worked at the orchard on days off.
The orchard had at one time been a very progressive operation, but by the time the Doorninks bought it in 1956, the varieties and equipment were outdated. It came with standard Red Delicious, Winesap, and Jonathan apples, as well as Bartlett pear and peach trees.
Jim, the eldest of seven children, worked in the orchard as soon as he was old enough and always enjoyed it, particularly the science and mechanics involved. He earned a degree in zoology from Washington State University, intending to become a physician. When he didn’t get into medical school, he stayed on a year to study botany and earn a teaching degree, but chose to become a full-time orchardist when he left college in 1974, the only one of the children to do so. His siblings comprise two doctors, two schoolteachers, an engineer, and an attorney.
Jim’s father always stressed the importance of continuing education, telling him, “When you stop learning, that’s when you’re in trouble.” Jim has found his 25 years on the Research Commission board to be an enjoyable educational experience.
“You get to rub shoulders with scientific people, and you get to keep your science skills polished a little bit,” he explained. “You get to see what new scientific products are being offered to the industry, and then part of it is evaluating whether they work or not.”
“Jim’s never lost his scientific curiosity,” said McFerson. “He’s fascinated every day by the physiological processes that he, as a grower, has to deal with.”
As commission chair, Jim is concerned about cost effectiveness of research programs and making sure the commission maximizes the return on its investment of grower dollars, McFerson added. He is fiscally prudent, but strategically adventuresome. He recognizes that the industry must change, including his own orchard operation.
“He’s one of the few people I’ve met who welcomes change and sees it as an opportunity, both in his own orchard and at the commission,” McFerson said.
When Jim joined the commission, he took the position of retiring member Chuck Peters, who was a friend and neighbor.
“He’s just one of the sharpest guys around the industry,” Peters said. “I think he’s flat-out smart. He’s well versed in a lot of subjects and is very analytical. If I had a business partner, I’d want him.”
Former commission board member Dave Allan of Wapato said he enjoys spending time with Jim. “We get together and we come up with these great strategies and these great ideas, and we work through those ideas and that process. That’s always fun to do. He just loves strategizing and thinking about this and that.”
Allan said Jim and Rena faced a difficult task when they took over the family orchard, but they’ve been extremely successful in what is a very tough business to be in. “He’s not just hanging on. He’s being successful.”
Allan said Jim’s quiet determination has paid off both in his own operation and at the Research Commission. He was pivotal in the commission’s decision to support an apple-breeding program at Washington State Universityan issue that was extremely controversial at the time. Some in the industry said all that needed to be done was to improve Red Delicious, Allan recalled. “Jim had that foresight, and he stuck with it and he didn’t waver. He’s persistent. If it doesn’t work today, he’s going to figure out how to make it work tomorrow.”
He said Jim instituted the idea of holding seminars focusing on specific industry problems to encourage researchers to submit research proposals to help solve them.
In addition to serving on the Research Commission, Jim was a board member of the Snokist Growers cooperative in Yakima for about 20 years and has been a long-time director of the Union Gap Irrigation District.
“I view board participation as service, but it goes both ways,” he said. “You try to give to the industry, but there’s a benefit because the people I am associated with on any of the boards educate you continually.”