Farming is a practice that is thousands of years in the making, and yet we are still learning and refining our techniques. Earlier this May, we had the pleasure of meeting some of our orchard partners while the trees were still in their early bloom or green fruit stages. This is a great time to meet with growers and better understand the year-long process it takes to make a bag of cherries or a flat of apples.
Gunkel Orchards in Maryhill, Washington, is well known for growing cherries and peaches. We’ve written about Gunkel from when we visited him in 2016. Since then, Dan has made a number of changes, including absorbing more orchard land from his neighbors, plating a large number of new rows, and also changing up some of his varietal percentages. Don’t worry, he’s still going to be producing his famous private reserve cherries!
While we were at Gunkel, we learned a bit more about his growing and picking process. He’s replanted several of his rows to make it easier for folks to walk through, having them open up in a more diamond pattern than a straight row block. He still keeps his trees low, allowing them to be picked without a ladder. This helps the pickers to pick faster and with a tighter workforce, but also helps reduce the possibilities of injury from a fall off a high ladder.
With Dan having replanted many trees since our last visit, we got to see just how fast cherry trees grow. Cherry trees reach maturity around five years of age, at which point they’re producing the best yield. They would also have shown any loss due to disease or mildew damage at that point. To put that into perspective, cherry season in the Columbia Gorge lasts for about 30 days, with fruit just starting to set in May and ready to pick at the beginning of June. Many of the trees we saw were only around two or three years, however, they were already producing good size fruit and coloring up. Needless to say, we can’t wait for these to reach full yield and maturity!
Our next stop for the day was Kiyokawa Orchards. There, Randy Kiyokawa grows a variety of apples and pears, as well as a small assortment of stone fruit, kiwi berries, and even quince. Kiyokawa lies in the heart of the Hood River Valley and is part of the Hood River Fruit Loop. They were one of the earliest apple and pear orchards in Oregon that had dedicated U-Pick rows.
The first thing you notice out at Kiyokawa is Mt Hood towering over the orchard. The second thing you notice is the large number of bees buzzing around this time of year, all of them so focused on pollinating all the trees to notice our presence. The air has the smell of the apple and pear pollen throughout. Turning around, you also see a great view of Mt Adams framed behind more pear and apple trees.
This time of year, Kiyokawa is busy pruning the orchards as they’re in the first part of their bloom. As buds are forming, some are pruned, sometimes whole branches, to make sure that there is enough space for each to form a good-sized apple (aiming mostly for the retail standard of an 80/88 ct). If the blooms are left on their own, the fruit may size up only to smaller than 125 ct (smaller than the USDA school nutrition guidelines) or may not even fruit at all.
The other thing they’re looking for is whether to trim or leave what is known as the King Bloom. King Blooms are the first flowers to open in the middle of a group of blooms and often bare the largest fruit. Depending on the variety and the goals, the king blooms may be cut to keep the tree producing smaller fruit (sometimes done with Honeycrisps, who’s king bloom apples can form to 36/48 ct) or the other blooms may be pruned to favor larger fruit. There were other minute variations in the blooms, with most of the pear blooms we saw being stark white, while red-fleshed apple cultivars (Mountain Rose, Pink Pearl, Scarlet Surprise) tended to have dark pink or magenta stripes in their flowers.
Technologically, Randy recently had new automation systems installed on his wind machines. Wind machines are used to help keep an orchard warm during cool nights. This not only helps keeps the fruit from getting stunted in growth, but also prevents quality issues from frost that create mealy, easily bruised fruit. Wind machines have been around for a long while, but they’ve always been a manual operation. Growers would monitor temperatures throughout their orchard and fire up or shut down wind machines during the night as they needed. Wind machines tend to be spread pretty wide across the orchard, thus the problem comes that by the time you get to your second machine, the first one is probably ready to be turned off, and you still have four more to reach and adjust. Thanks to further developments, wind machines now can be programmed to start and stop individually based on the temperature of their specific row, thus no more running around except to gas up the power generators now and then.