Jun 2, 2011
Farm a model of diversified fruit production

Brenton Roy’s family has been farming in Washington state’s Yakima Valley for four generations. At 37, Roy is continuing the tradition as the owner of Oasis Farms in Prosser, Wash.
When Roy’s family first started farming in the valley, they grew hops. He still grows that crop, but his farm has diversified into tree fruit, grapes and berries – all spread over more than a thousand acres.

Fifteen years ago, when Roy came back from college, his parents were eager to move on to other things. By the time he was 25, he had taken over the farm completely. He was pretty young to be running the business by himself, but he learned quickly.

Taking over the farm so young made it easier for Roy to hire Derek Hill straight out of Washington State University, where Hill studied viticulture and enology. Now 28, Hill has been with Oasis Farms for four years. He originally was hired to manage the farm’s vineyards, but now oversees every crop. Age wasn’t a factor in the decision to make Hill his production manager, Roy said.

“I liked Derek’s fire. He was very energetic and hard working. He convinced me he could do it.”

As production manager, Hill oversees the handful of supervisors responsible for different parts of the operation, who in turn oversee 50 or so year-round employees (about 150 at seasonal peaks). Without that management structure, his farm wouldn’t last long, Roy said.

The diversity of crops keeps dozens employed ¬year round – and keeps Hill busy.

“There’s never a dull moment,” Hill said.

Each of the farm’s many customers, from wineries to grocery chains, wants something different – especially the wineries, who have different philosophies about the grapes they want and the way they should be grown, Hill said.

The farm is balanced fairly evenly between wine and juice grapes, tree fruit and hops, Roy said. It recently branched into berries, too, including 50 acres of certified organic blueberries.

The farm’s tree fruit includes apples and smaller acreages of cherries, apricots and peaches. The apples include Fuji, Braeburn, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, Pink Lady and Jazz. Most of the apples end up in grocery stores, Hill said.

In February, Hill hosted a group of growers from the International Fruit Tree Association. They talked about tree management. Correct management, including thinning and pruning, is always a challenge. Hill showed the group some east-west rows of Aztec Fuji trees planted in 2006. Most of the farm’s apples are grown on the tall spindle system, with some on the vertical axis. Some older Golden trees are still grown on more traditional systems, but they’re gradually being replaced by tall spindle trees.

As far as future plans for Oasis Farms, Roy’s “Holy Grail” is to find a way to vertically integrate. He doesn’t know when it will come along or what it will look like, but he’ll take advantage of the right opportunity.

By Matt Milkovich





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