Stu and Sandra Simmons, Member Spotlight, September 2011
When Stu Simmons bought land outside of Zillah in 1986, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the property. Stu married Sandra, time went by, and they decided they needed to do something with the property “pretty darn quick.” The couple planted their one acre of organic cherry trees in 1997 and “PDQ Farms” was born. Despite the urgency implied by their name, things at PDQ Farms happen with mindful deliberation. Stu’s reserved and humble nature is reflected in the operation’s overall ethic, “I don’t think we’re doing anything different than anyone else, we just try to be real consistent so that we produce the best possible product.”
What keeps the farm going season after season?
Most of the hard work is done by my wife, Sandra, because I have a day job during harvest which keeps me away from home much of the time. She has shouldered the load of managing the harvest, managing the operations and watching the kids. We have a very loyal and hard working group of people to help us during harvest, and what we produce is largely because of their hard work. Our kids, Claire, 12, and Lily, 6, chase the birds out of the orchard and help with sundry jobs such as washing boxes and helping to apply fertilizer.
So what’s your day job?
I am a field man for one of the Yakima Valley fruit packers and shippers. I actually have a bachelor’s degree in horticulture, and I have thirty years of experience growing tree fruit and agronomic crops like wheat and corn, nursery stock and flowers. I provide advice to some of my neighbors and receive advice from some of my neighbors. I think I come out on the better end of the deal.
Tell me about your bugs and dirt.
I have a fairly good sense of what needs to be done in terms of pest control – and it’s nice to be able to walk around the orchard and get a sense of that. Our soil is of volcanic origin, good soil, fairly deep, has good fertility, holds water well. In order to maintain tree vigor we add some fertilizer, necessary to get the growth on the trees we need to produce the fruit – these would be organic amendments like blood meal or fish meal.
Fourteen years in, do you still like cherries, Stu?
I love cherries! Fresh out of hand, just picked off the tree – that’s the best way. I’m a traditionalist. I think there are two kinds of cherries. There are Bings, and there is everything else. A lot of people like the Rainiers, too.
How do you market your cherries?
We sell principally to natural food co-ops in the Puget Sound area, and we value these loyal customers. We go back year after year – the same people and same places. We value the people we sell to as they’ve been excellent customers and do a lot to promote our products – we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them.
We’re a small orchard, and I realized when we established it that we needed to have something to set ourselves apart from most other orchards. When we began, there were not a lot of organic acreage on the ground. Also, our orchard begins where our backyard ends. This is a place where our kids are playing, and an extra measure of safety was in order for their sake.
How have you seen the organic industry change in the last twenty years?
I recall being in a meeting several years ago, where representatives of the larger packing operations in the state said that it took them 90 years to control 50% of the conventional production and only 10 years to control 50% of organic production. We’ve seen tons of people jump in hoping to cash in on a premium price. But the machinery for selling that kind of fruit hasn’t developed the way that they expected it to back when folks where switching from conventional. I assume that we are probably leveled off, some will stay in organic and simply see no other way to do it. Others, well, they have other things they want to do.
What’s something you’ve learned farming?
I don’t know that it’s particularly profound, but farming teaches one a good sense of humility. In our first few years of operation we were going along, doing what we thought was a good job and preparing for our first significant harvest. Then a couple of days before we harvested, a tremendous wind and hail storm came through and destroyed the entire crop. It was just one of those things that you can’t avoid; falls on everyone at one time or another.
Will you ever retire?
Let’s see, hmm, I’ve got a six year old. No, I don’t think I’ll ever retire. In the back of our minds when we started was the notion Sandra and I could take care of the orchard as we entered retirement age. At some point in everyone’s life you have to say enough is enough and it is a very difficult decision to make. You really never know when that’s going to happen. A change in health and circumstances can render any plans you have obsolete. But my sense is probably not – and that’s okay.
Why are you a member of Tilth Producers?
There is an old farming chestnut that says, “Get big or get out.” I don’t necessarily agree with that. In rural communities, the small growers are the people who coach the Little League and soccer teams. They staff the volunteer fire departments. They organize the bake sales and prepare the funeral luncheons. In other words, they are the glue that holds the community together. I guess I would like to believe that the small grower still has a place at the table Tilth is one of the few organizations that honor that notion, and that’s why we are members.
PDQ Farms is located at 2330 Roza Drive in Zillah Washington.
Contact Stu & Sandra at firstname.lastname@example.org