Eastern Washington is the epicenter of the nation’s certified organic apple and pear production. The region’s arid climate, combined with large-scale irrigation projects, has enabled our state’s orchardists to grow 65% of the nation’s organic apples and 61% of organic pears
David Granatstein and Elizabeth Kirby, researchers at the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources in Wenatchee, publish annual reports on the status of organic farming in our state. According to their most recent report, in 2011 Washington had 14,296 acres of certified organic apples and 1,917 acres of certified organic pears. Sales were an estimated $150 million for organic apples and $18 million for organic pears.
Our state’s primary organic apple varieties are Fuji and Gala (which make up nearly half of the state’s organic apple acreage), followed by Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, Golden Delicious, Pink Lady, Braeburn, and Cameo. In addition, as the market for organic apples continues to expand, Eastern Washington growers are experimenting with new varieties such as Pinova, Kanzi, Sweetango, Tsugaru, and Pinata.
Over the past ten years the apple industry expanded dramatically in south-central Washington. Plantings of certified organic apples in Grant County tripled to 6,000 acres. Douglas and Yakima Counties have 1,500 to 2,000 acres planted to organic apples, while Franklin, Walla Walla, Chelan, Adams, and Benton Counties each have under 1,000 acres in certified organic production.
Bartlett and D’Anjou are our state’s primary organic pear varieties, with smaller plantings of Bosc, Seckel, Concorde, Tosca, Taylor’s Gold, Forelle, Starkrimson, and Comice. In addition, a few growers are raising Asian pears such as Shinseiki and Hosui. The major areas for pear production are Yakima County, with 567 acres, Okanogan, with 535 acres, and Chelan with 436 acres.
In the early 1980s, John Brownfield and Ray Fuller in Chelan County helped pioneer growing tree fruit without toxic chemicals, and in 1988 their farms were among the first to be certified organic when the Washington State Department of Agriculture initiated the Organic Food Program.
Harold Austin is another organic pioneer. He grew up on an apple orchard in the Yakima Valley and over a period of 30 years he assisted dozens of growers transition to organic practices. Austin now oversees production of more than 2,000 acres of certified organic apples, pears, cherries, and blueberries for Zirkle Fruit Company in Selah. He has served on the WSDA Organic Advisory Board for many years and in January, 2012, Austin was appointed to a five-year term on the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board, where he is working to ensure the integrity of our nation’s organic certification program.
While there are now large-scale, integrated grower/packers with hundreds of acres of organic tree fruit, innovators such as Grant Gibbs near Leavenworth and Wynne Weinreb and Scott Beaton at Jerzy Boyz Farm near Chelan have demonstrated there’s still a place for small-scale producers. The keys are lots of hard work, creativity, devotion to soil and tree health, and cultivating direct marketing outlets.
Although our state’s organic fruit industry is centered primarily in Eastern Washington, apples continue to be an important crop for many smaller farms west of the Cascades. For example, Steve Johnson at Lazy J Tree Farm near Port Angeles, grows varieties that produce well in Clallam County’s moist, maritime climate, such as Jonagold, Chehalis, Gravenstein, King, Mutsu, and Melrose.
In addition apples and pears for fresh eating, the re-discovery of hard ciders has opened new vistas for our state’s organic orchardists. Starting in 2003, Steven and Nancy Bishop began planting traditional European cider apples with exotic names like Foxwhelp, Kingston Black and Muscadet de Dieppe, plus traditional cider pears to make our state’s first certified organic hard ciders at Alpenfire Orchards near Port Townsend. Other brewers, such as Finnriver Farm in Chimacum and Tieton Cider Works, also use organically grown apples and pears to craft their award-winning hard ciders, perfect to toasting to the success of the organic food and farming in our region.