Dec 3, 2012Fruit stand works for Washington orchard
It’s 30˚ F in the Wenatchee Valley, the sun isn’t up yet and Dennis Nicholson is hard at work at Nicholson’s Orchard Fresh in Peshastin, Wash., finishing a block of pears.
This is exactly the type of work Nicholson expected when he and his wife Nancy decided to pack up the kids and move back to the family orchard in 1987, after working in Seattle for 15 years.
“My grandfather grew up on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and migrated to the Pacific Northwest after serving in the U.S. Army during World War I,” Nicholson said. “I believe he worked in the timber industry until he was able to buy his first orchard near where our orchard is today. After being discharged from the Navy in 1946, my father married my mother and came home to run the family orchard.”
Although he enjoyed the family business as a youngster, Dennis Nicholson set off on a different path, but felt deep in his heart that someday he would return.
“One day I heard from a friend that my father was talking to some other growers about selling the orchard,” he said. “That’s when I had to make a decision. We put a ‘for sale’ sign in front of our Seattle house and moved to Leavenworth, a town about eight miles from our orchard.
“We actually didn’t know much about agriculture. We knew the orchard, we knew people in the community; I was familiar with tractors, sprayers, ladders and irrigation systems. Our biggest challenge was making a budget that worked, and not spending more money growing a crop than I made from the crop.”
Initially, the Nicholsons concentrated on apple varieties like Red Delicious, but over the past 25 years they’ve discovered what works best for them.
The orchard is middle-sized for the area, and harvests about 1.5 million pounds of pears, 160,000 pounds of apples and a few thousand pounds of cherries and peaches, Nicholson said.
“The majority of our pears are taken by Blue Bird, a grower-owned cooperative located a few miles from our orchard,” he said. “They store, pack and ship our apples and pears to retail trade, domestically and worldwide.”
Over the years, the Nicholsons have worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Services to modernize their irrigation systems, and have worked with Washington State University to develop “soft” pesticide programs and residual-free products marketed under the Gently Grown label.
“We started looking at ways to raise nice, clean fruit without using broad-spectrum pesticides that kill all the bugs in the orchard,” Nicholson said. “Instead, we try to use products that just target the bad bugs at their stage of development and spare the beneficial bugs.”
They use viruses specific to pests such as codling moth, and also use pheromones to confuse the moths so they can’t find one another during mating, he said.
But their smartest decision was finding an alternative way to sell their fruit. Today, the Nicholsons run a very successful fruit stand that is open from June until the end of October. It features their own fruit, plus fruit from some of their neighbors. Their product line is mostly fresh fruit, starting with cherries in June and ending with apples in October. They’ve started working with a certified organic commercial kitchen to make dried fruit products and preserves from their organic fruit.
“Fruit returns dropped in the mid-’90s and it was a struggle to recover your growing costs, let alone make a profit,” Nicholson said. “I suggested that my wife and kids could make some Christmas money by selling apples on the weekends, so we stacked boxes of apples on our pickup and parked it by Highway 97. Each year, our fruit stand developed a little more. We purchased display tent tables, added more fruit; a neighbor decided to get out of the fruit stand business, so we bought his equipment and a relative gave us their fruit stand cooler and a small building to put our cash register in.”
Nicholson learned along the way that you can’t open a fruit stand without getting involved with the government, and he had to deal with business licenses, permits, the health department and zoning laws.
“That sent me on a mission to get policies clarified and uniformly enforced,” he said. “I spent many nights attending county hearings, debating how many square feet a fruit stand could be and what percent of the sales had to be from your own orchard. My dealings with the government led me to the state capital to testify to the Legislature on whether or not fruit stands could be allowed on lands designated as permitting agriculture only.”
Nicholson persuaded the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce to support local fruit stands and agricultural tourism, in order to give visitors another activity to enjoy.
“We enjoy having a chance to talk to our customers,” he said. “Some have fruit trees of their own and want to know how to prune, or why their fruit is spotted, should they spray etc. People are curious about organic products; many believe that organic means that they haven’t been sprayed. We try to gently tell them that organic fruit is often sprayed more often than conventional, but that no synthetic pesticides are used. We have orchard tours for school groups and have held orchard walks for other interested groups, like bird watchers and organic inspector trainees.”
As for the future, Nicholson doesn’t see orchard expansion as a viable option, but does see the wine industry as having a positive effect on what’s to come.
“We have witnessed a growing interest in the wine industry, going from no wineries 10 years ago to 20-plus at this time,” he said. “I am growing some hard cider apples and pears, which a local winemaker is turning into award winning cider.”
For now, Nicholson will continue to do what he loves: Growing, meeting customers at the fruit stand and lobbying for change.
“I love being able to work outside and enjoy planting a tree in the spring and taking care of it until it is bearing fruit,” he said.
He enjoys working with his employees, working with WSU scientists on improving growing methods and working with field staff from the cooperative to keep ahead of orchard pests, he said.
By Keith Loria, FGN Correspondent