Apr 7, 2007
Washington’s Jim Koempel Named Apple Citizen of the Year

It’s a tradition in Washington state. Each year, the community of apple growers around Wenatchee selects the Apple Citizen of the Year.

This year, it’s Jim Koempel of Cashmere, who grows 275 acres of fruit – mostly pears but also apples, cherries, apricots and peaches – on irrigated parcels positioned along 30 miles of the Columbia and Wenatchee River valleys. He had cherries in bloom April 10 at his Rock Island farm, while patches of snow remained on the ground at Peshastin Creek.

The climate difference spreads the workload, he said, and makes orchard management easier. The elevation difference allows him to diversify his fruit crops and keep his workers busy for a longer season.

Jim now farms with his 30-year-old son, Josh.

“We’re in year six of a five-year plan in which I’m stepping back,” Jim said. “I’m becoming the go-fer guy.”

But sharing the workload has allowed him to step forward and “give something back” to the fruit industry he’s been part of all his life. He’s on the board of directors of the Peshastin Irrigation District, the Washington Growers Clearing House and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.

The Growers Clearing House is part of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, which had its hands full this spring pressing Congress for reform of immigration and labor laws. Koempel traveled to Washington, D.C. several times.

“We need to have worker permits for entry at the same time we have some kind of border control,” he said. “The H-2A program has many good facets, but it’s too cumbersome to work.

“We hire mostly Hispanics on our farm, and some of them have been coming here 16, 18 years. Now they’re buying farms. Like everybody else, they want to live the American dream. We need to figure out how to make it all work, and we will.”

Since 2002, the Koempels have been part of the Peshastin Creek areawide pear management program, in which 11 pear growers are working together in a program to use “soft” pesticides and recover more money from the marketplace as a result. Their products, called Gently Grown pears, were marketed last year by Bluebird Fruit.

Koempel said there have been some marketing problems. The first year, they collaborated with Food Alliance, which had trouble placing fruit that was not conventional but wasn’t organic either.

Some of the growers use organic practices but others, like the Koempels, use organic practices on the trees – softer pesticides – but use conventional weed control and fertility practices and will use non-organic pest control methods if they need to. Organic growers, for example, have no effective pesticides for control of pear rust mites.

Methods used include mating disruption for codling moth control and use of the kaolin clay product, Surround, for pear psylla control.

Making the program areawide enhances the effectiveness of mating disruption and provides a larger area for buildup and migration of natural enemies, said Washington State University entomologist John Dunley, who is working with growers on the project.

“Biological control alone cannot currently control any of the major arthropod pests of pear,” Dunley says on the Tree Fruit Research and Education Center Web site.

“To obtain a long-term, stable pest management program in pears, research is necessary to develop a consistently effective integrated program that coordinates chemical control with biological control, and also uses semiochemical (pheromone) and cultural control practices.

“The number of organic fruit growers in Washington has risen dramatically since 1995, largely due to the success of mating disruption for control of codling moth, the key pest of apple and pear. Control of codling moth without organophosphate insecticides, prior to the development of codling moth mating disruption, was very difficult and costly and served as a major barrier to development of more environmentally-benign IPM programs.”

Dunley expects pear psylla will respond to areawide management. Because it is host specific, infestations from populations on alternate or wild hosts are not a concern.

At the time the program began, Dunley said: “We expect to greatly reduce the use of conventional pesticides for management of insect pests, decreasing risk to workers and the environment. Broad-spectrum neurotoxins will be avoided (100 percent reduction in organophosphate use). Pest control will primarily be accomplished using biological control, with augmentation using kaolin clay (Surround), Bts, mating disruption, and the botanical insecticide azadirachtin (from the neem tree). Insect growth regulators (pyriproxifen, diflubenzuron, methoxyfenozide) will be used if further insecticide interventions are necessary.”

Jim Koempel grew up on a farm and went off to college, becoming a high school agriculture science and shop teacher. But within a year, he bought a small farm of his own and began a gradual accumulation of land. By the mid-1980s, he was a full-time fruit grower.

Among the “prizes” for being Apple Citizen of the Year, Koempel will be honored at a joint luncheon of area service clubs and will ride in the Stemilt Growers Grand Parade during the Apple Blossom Festival.

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