Feb 13, 2023Red to blue: Washington grower leaves apples for blueberries
Securing adequate labor hasn’t been as big a headache for Applegate Orchards/Blue Mountain Farms in eastern Washington, having transitioned from tree fruit to blueberries.
Up to 100 percent of Applegate’s blueberries, grown in Burbank, are certified organic.
Labor for blueberries is less accident-prone than apples for Applegate, which finds an abundance of domestic workers from the neighboring Tri Cities of Pasco, Richland and Kennewick, Washington, said owner Shirley Mason.
Applegate attracts many workers who can’t climb ladders or bend over to pick asparagus or onions. These workers want to work the full three months of harvest instead of hopping from farm to farm, Mason said.
The operation tried using contract labor companies in the past, but results were unsatisfactory. Mason relies on word of mouth and is able to secure many workers. Labor remains the operation’s biggest expense.
Harvest of northern highbush blueberries commences in mid-June with production typically ending in September. Though it harvests many varieties for fresh, processing and juice companies, the focus is on fresh blueberries being marketed through Naturipe Farms.
Promoting soil health
Mason tests the soil under blueberry production. Because the berries require lower pH levels than found in the region, she lowers pH via water and dry applications. The company used to use a citrus acid drip, but is employing other methods to bring the pH down to 5.5, which will help keep plants green.
“The plants must be happy,” Mason said. “If you keep them happy with nice, happy beds, they will grow and will grow well.”
Otherwise, they will yellow after not consuming nutrients due to incorrect pH.
Major diseases include spotted-wing drosophila and blights. With a drier climate, eastern Washington doesn’t experience as many of the fungal problems brought on by western Washington’s high moisture.
“Their pH is perfect for growing blueberries automatically in their soil,” Mason said. “Out here, our challenge is getting enough water, a different soil that requires bringing the soil pH down and the heat.”
After labor, fertilizer is the next biggest farm expense. With fertilizer costs almost doubling in recent seasons, Applegate closely watches costs and how it uses products for smarter application processes and precision ag, Mason said. When Mason’s son read an article on using drones for pest management and applying nutrients, she saw it as a good (although costlier) idea when the standard row-by-row application is not possible due to weather.
Doing the homework
“With new things coming out all the time, we do our homework on what new fertilizers and nutrients are available,” Mason said. “We are always looking into how we can do things better. There are always new and different ways to apply the necessary treatments that would be more beneficial.”
Weather remains a challenge. Recent years brought extreme heat, including 115° Fahrenheit temperatures in 2021, which some berry varieties can’t handle well. During the summer of 2022, for example, the region experienced 60 consecutive days of average temperatures of 100° Fahrenheit. Fewer cool nights and chilling hours will stress plants. It doesn’t take much high heat for sunburn to harm immature berries. When temperatures hit 90-95° Fahrenheit, Applegate starts cooling fruit through misters.
Applegate continually removes apple trees and highbush Rabbiteye blueberries, which can’t tolerate the Northwest’s winters. It replanted high-chill Duke, Legacy, Liberty, Aurora and Last Call varieties. A handful of other varieties remain but Applegate is planning to replant newer ones. Applegate relies on Washington State University and Michigan State University as well as new varieties being developed by Berry Blue.
Economics prompted Applegate to plant blueberries and remove apple trees that were planted in the 1990s by Mason and her former husband. By 1998, following some difficult years, the couple realized apples weren’t making any money and decided to diversify.
Studying crops and talking with other growers, the couple experimented in their backyard. The more research they did, the more they were attracted to blueberries.
In 2000, Applegate transitioned to organics. In 2002, it planted its first blueberry bushes, replacing blocks of apples with blueberry bushes. Like with apples, limited berry production begins in the second to third year, with another couple years required before full production commences.
Technology is important to Mason. Applegate is a test farm participating in BerrySmart, a field project from innov8.ag, a Walla Walla, Washington, agricultural technology startup that helps grow and harvest blueberries more efficiently. Mason welcomes bringing new technology to her groves, which include gauging soil variability and sensors to better predict crop load.
“There are so many things that keep coming up all the time, the new technology, the new varieties,” she said. Mason cites apps that allow irrigation control via smartphones.
Remaining successful involves diligence.
“You really have to keep an eye on your crop,” Mason said.
Despite all the challenges, Mason remains optimistic.
“There are new challenges every year,” she said. “Things are always changing. Just trying to keep up with the weather and the new things coming out is a constant change. But, if you’re not changing, you’re not improving.”
— Doug Ohlemeier, assistant editor
Top photo: Shirley Mason, owner of Applegate Orchards, grows organic blueberries in eastern Washington. Photos: Doug Ohlemeier
Editor’s note: Due to an editor’s error, the story originally contained incorrect temperatures.