Dave Gleason, Member Spotlight, July 2012
Dave Gleason is Chief Horticulturalist for Kershaw Fruit in the Yakima Valley. Since 2003, Dave has been managing more than 1,000 acres of orchards around Eastern Washington.
What’s your background, Dave?
I went to Central Washington University and got a degree in German with a minor in Spanish. I had plans to be a translator in a remote location. I wanted to go and learn the language, work on translating the Bible, help people establish a written language. But when I got married in college and my wife and I thought about what life would be like for our kids, we made the decision to stay in the country and prioritize family. I’ve been blessed with 4 kids and 6.5 grandkids so far.
How did you come to work at Kershaw?
I grew up on an apple orchard in Yakima’s west valley. My grandfather bought the land in the ’30’s and my father ran the orchard. As a kid, I did a lot of the sprinkler work, thinning and picking. But you know, I didn’t much like the drudgery. I’m a pretty gregarious person, and I was alone a lot.
I returned to the apple business in the early 80’s and managed orchards from Yakima, Royal City all the way up to Bridgeport in the Okanogan. Then in the mid-90’s I took over clients as Dad retired from his pest consultant business. He had about 35 growers in the Yakima area. There was lots of consolidation in the industry in the late 90’s and early 2000’s–lots of farms were being purchased and consolidated. Kershaw became one of our clients in 2000. The Kershaw family invited me to work full time and I respected their approach.
What did your father teach you about orcharding?
I learned a lot from my father. He grew up in the apple industry and started working as a private consultant in orchard pest control in the 1980’s. His approach was to use the least possible amount of pesticide, for both environmental and economic reasons. He wanted to keep the costs down for the growers. He developed soft pest control programs and had clients from the Tri-Cities to the upper valley of Yakima.
I learned early, walking in the orchard with Dad. We’d take a hand lens out and look at the insect predators. Dad would find the good guys on the leaves, and always put them back in the tree where they belonged. I’d say I’ve learned by osmosis my whole life.
And you know, my father is 82 years old and is still teaching and inspiring me. When my mother passed away a year ago, Dad went back to work looking at orchards with me. He works closely with the chemical thinning. We’ll be out in the field, and he’ll say things like, “Did you notice the pattern of how the bees pollinated that field?” And I hadn’t. It’s good to have people to both set and push your boundaries. He is now working full time for a local orchard company.
Tell me a little about Kershaw Fruit.
Kershaw Fruit is the fruit producing part of Kershaw Companies. We grow, pack, store, sell and do some trucking too. Kershaw Fruit was started by Bob and Ed Kershaw, and their sons are involved in the business. The Kershaw family has been growing fruit for five generations.
Kershaw is a marketing company also. We handle apples, cherries, pears and some soft fruit under the Domex, Superfresh label. Our bulk sales volume is over 13 million boxes. We bring in the fruit and pack it ourselves. Fruit is stored and marketed all over the world–India, Russia, Taiwan, and many other countries. New markets are always developing. We are selling to Canada and Mexico, and we sell a lot domestically. We look for markets that pay a good price for the fruit. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to return money back to the grower and ensure you’re getting paid for what you do.
So what does a Chief Horticulturalist do all day?
Most days I get out in the field by 6 or 6:30 in the morning. I go to all the different areas where work is going on. I check operations, looking at tree health and irrigation status. I watch for insect and disease development, assess any issues emerging. I see all the Kershaw orchards every 3 days or so. And I look at the outside growers’ orchards too, the ones we pack. I probably travel about 50,000 miles a year between orchards. I use my phone a lot, I visit with managers, check crews and see about 150-200 people who are thinning, mowing, doing weed control and picking fruit.
How is the season shaping up so far?
All signs are for a great crop this year, especially with the apples and cherries. We had a great start to the season, one of the nicest springs I can remember. We have had some cooler, wetter conditions, but for most part, there’s lots of high quality fruit on the trees.
What’s your favorite variety?
About half of Kershaw’s fruit is Galas. They have a great flavor, we’ve learned how to store them, and they’re well liked in the market. Honey Crisp is good too, but they’re harder to grow. Consumers keep coming back for Galas. They’re my favorite. Golden Delicious is right up there–they taste great, but they’ve lost some market.
What are your current challenges?
It would have to be labor, as an industry, all the way through the system. We need consistent labor to rely on to thin and harvest. I hope we can figure this out as a country.
There are other issues, like changing food regulations, food safety concerns, environmental conditions, and pests. Spotted Winged Drosophila and the Brown Marmorated Stinkbug are on the horizon. We haven’t seen much damage yet, but the controls are harder chemicals and I like to spray as little as possible. I like nature to balance things out, but you need clean fruit for the customer.
Any issues with pollinators, we’ve been hearing about that in the press.
Personally I’m not seeing any issues. I poll our beekeepers every year, and they’re not seeing any excessive hive loss. There are a number of pests and diseases that hurt bees, but there are many studies being done to determine what may be happening. I am confident that our scientists will figure out what is going on.
What do you like best about what you do?
I love being outside, seeing the plants grow. I like the consistency of seeing the same orchards one year to the next and working to improve quality and plant health. It’s exciting working with a team of people who are learning and increasing their understanding of horticulture, timing, insect and disease development. I enjoy the education side, being a coach and a mentor. It’s satisfying to help everyone feel ownership in what they’re doing. The Kershaws are great at encouraging that. Half of the money we spend is on labor. We work hard developing passionate people. Those people do all the work, all I do is check on things.
We have good camaraderie all the way. We challenge and help each other; we learn from our mistakes. We trust one another. And we always celebrate together at the end of every major operation like pruning and harvest.
Why are you a member of Tilth Producers?
I like what I see in organic. It broadens the experience you can have. I learn a lot from organic; conventional is getting softer all the time. Some of the things I use now in orchard management, I first saw with organics. I like keeping up with the resources Tilth Producers offers, like the intern programs and the farm walks.