Dec 16, 2016
Van Well Nursery marks 70 years of providing fruit trees

Van Well Nursery has come a long way since 1946, to become a top supplier of fruit trees to commercial orchardists, wholesale and retail nurseries and the average backyard gardener.

The Wenatchee, Washington-based operation now grows more than 1 million apple, pear, cherry, peach, plum, prune, apricot, nectarine and nut trees each year.

“We’ve been around for a little while,” Pete Van Well II said, as Van Well Nursery marked its 70th anniversary this year.

“My grandfather, father and uncles did all the hard work,” said Pete II, who works inside sales, coordinates the work of sales agents and managed the company’s advertising and marketing programs. “We’re now in the third generation, with the second generation still here to guide us.”

Peter Van Well Sr. was optimistic about the future following World War II. He had two sons returning from military service who very shortly would be entering the work force in the Wenatchee area. He wanted a business of his own. One he could develop and, in time, turn over to his sons.

His background, experience and interest dictated that the fruit tree nursery industry would be that business. For nearly 30 years, Van Well had been nursery superintendent for C&O Nursery in Wenatchee, and had established an enviable reputation in that trade.

Pete Sr. bought an old mule and 10 acres of open land in East Wenatchee. With the help of sons Jack and Joe, Pete set out some apple grafts. A year later, the trio was making peach and pear grafts, and was ready to deliver 23,000 finished fruit trees to commercial orchardists in the area – giving birth to Van Well Nursery.

The years progressed and the firm grew. Pete, the president, was joined by three additional sons, Pete Jr., Tom and Dick.

Pete Sr. died in 1973, and Jack and Joe have passed, too. Tom retired, but Pete Jr. and Dick remain involved in the company. The third generation of the Van Well family is now firmly entrenched. Suzanne Van Well is Canadian subsidiary manager, Chris Van Well is scion wood selection, inventory and shipping manager, Joe Adams is in charge of the company’s inventory and information systems, Ric Van Well handles orchard and nursery production operations, and Pete Van Well II is the company’s business, sales and marketing manager.

Van Well Nursery’s fruit tree digging crews at the company’s Quincy, Washington, location.

The company operates 120 acres of orchard and about 700 acres of nursery stock in three different Columbia Basin areas: Wenatchee, Quincy and Moses Lake. Its corporate headquarters are in East Wenatchee, where it also has storage capacity for over 1 million fruit trees.

A variety producer

Over the past 70 years, Van Well Nursery has been responsible for the testing, propagation, patenting, introduction and marketing of many notable fruit tree varieties, particularly, early on, Red Delicious sports such as Red King, Oregon Spur, Scarlet Spur, Super Chief and Adams Apple.

As the fruit industry turned away from Red Delicious, Van Well sought out other exclusive apple varieties such as Auvil Early Fuji, Gale Gala, Red Jonaprince, Redfield Red Braeburn and Red Cameo. The list of new apple, cherry, pear, peach and apricot varieties continues to grow, as the company seeks to identify, produce and market the needs of the next generation of commercial orchardists.

Pete II said he “came into the business a little late.” He earned a degree in journalism and worked at the Wenatchee World and Fishing and Hunting News. He picked up an MBA, then came to work for the family business.

“Over the years we have grown,” he said. “We started in Wenatchee, went down to Yakima, and my uncle started in the 1950s in Idaho. In the late ’70s we were in Michigan, and now we’re pretty much going to everywhere in North America, including Van Well Nursery Ltd. in Canada, that sells trees in British Columbia.”

Nursery tree work at Van Well Nursery.

The company “sold more peach trees than anything else” in the 1950s. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the company was based in downtown Wenatchee, where it had a full-service garden center. A 1960s catalogue featured roses, asparagus starts, berries, nuts and grapes.

“Over the years we really intensified in the fruit business, and in the last 25 to 30 years it’s been strictly fruit trees,” Pete II said.

Apples have become the dominant tree product, Pete II said.

“We have about 100,000 more apple trees than we do everything else altogether. We do peaches, plums and apricots – not too many others do hardier stone fruit.”

Pete II said Van Well is in the same boat as other nurseries that are challenged to supply enough trees to growers.

“With stone fruit, it’s hard to get trees and it’s hard to satisfy so many different varieties – being that they’re second only to apples with the number of varieties cultivated. We can’t grow every single one. Trying to meet the needs is very difficult.”

He said Van Well had a full crop of peaches this year, but quickly sold out because other suppliers had shortfalls.

“This year is looking the same, with peaches next to nothing,” he said. “There will be quite a few apricots.”

Pete II said cherry and pear tree supply is “tight.”

“Of people in Washington, we probably have the largest variety selection. The market is going to more of the bigger growers with apples on high-density rootstock. High value takes up so much of the rootstock we have. Land availability is a big concern.”

Van Well conducts a lot of business through contracting, “but we also grow for specialization to cater to big, large guys and also smaller and medium-sized guys. We kind of have that older model in our company. It works really well.”

He said said Van Well “appreciates the bigger growers. We also appreciate having the growers that aren’t quite so big for roadside people and farmers’ markets. The diversification has really kept our sales stable over the years.”

The biggest success has been seen in sports of established varieties, Pete II said.

“We’ve introduced some unique varieties, which primarily have been sports. It’s knowing your customer and having them trust you. If we find a sport, find an improvement, we bring it to them. I credit Uncle Pete for building that trust, and Pete to this day still does a lot of our evaluation on all of the fruit.”

Van Well Nursery’s headquarters in Wenatchee, Washington.

Building trust

Pete II said working closely with growers is a top consideration when pursuing new variety development.
“You need to get growers’ trust if they bring you their variety. In case of Cameo (an apple cultivar discovered by the Caudle family in a Washington, orchard in 1987), it was a new variety a grower brought to us. We’re building trust with people across the world. We work with breeding programs and other nurseries. Pete really has done a lot of good for the company, delving into relationships that led to Scarlet Spur and Gale Gala, for example.

“We try to treat each other pretty fairly,” he said. “Variety testing can take 10 years. Testing agreements make sure the rights are maintained with the originator of the variety. When you get done testing, you work on getting the right of first refusal so they go with us. Pete has also written a lot of plant patents. We send out trees to different locations to see how they do in maybe Michigan or North Carolina. Varieties, especially apples, are regional in nature. Some things work really well.”

While “not as big in club varieties as some of our competitors,” Pete II said Van Well is working with a number of managed varieties coming up through the North American International New Varieties Network, which includes C&O, Willow Drive and Pro Tree nurseries.

“Even if they have a managed variety and are a big outfit that grows a lot of their own trees, they still need replacement trees on blocks of conventional plantings and they still need pollinators,” Pete II said. “That’s changed the landscape a little bit.”

— Gary Pullano, associate editor

Labor is the nursery industry’s biggest concern

Pete Van Well II sees the fruit production industry’s consolidation and vertical integration as impacting the nursery business, including Van Well Nursery, but not as much as labor concerns will drive decision-making going forward.

“There is more vertical integration,” he said. “With consolidation and vertical integration, there are going to be fewer and fewer people in the fruit industry.”

“The availability of land is a concern,” Pete II said. “We try to raise stock on new ground every year. With our own property down in the basin, we try to do land swaps to get new sites.”

He said the biggest concern is labor. Washington state voted Nov. 8 to raise the state’s minimum wage to $13.50 an hour by 2020.

“It’s hard to imagine, at $13.50 an hour, workers will be out and crawling up and down nursery rows when they can make it at McDonald’s,” Pete II said. “We’ll be paying more.”

Pete II said “every bud on every tree we grow has to be set and tied by hand. It has to be hand-cut back. We can’t use herbicides that will affect trees. All the weeds need to be pulled or hoed. There are a lot of hands on the trees before it goes to the grower.

Being labor-intensive is our biggest challenge.”

He said more efforts will be made to take advantage of the cyclical nature of nursery work, including working with people in the apple industry who they could partner with to share workers.

“We’re doing bedding about the same time apples get picked,” Pete II said. “When they’re picking, we’re digging trees. It’s something everyone is looking at throughout the industry. Right now, we seem to be getting enough labor.”

Many larger growers are operating their own tree nurseries, Pete II said, but “there’s a place for nurseries, too. If you have one variety in particular and need a lot of trees, it works out really great for them if they can produce and utilize their labor.”

“If there’s only a handful of growers in the country and they start all growing their own apples, we have to figure out what we’re going to do and be part of it. It’s kind of an evolution of the industry. It kind of makes sense, especially with the small number of variety and rootstock combinations that they’re dedicated to. They will always need replacement trees, pollinators, standard stuff.”

— Gary Pullano, associate editor


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