McManus Family Fruit



October 29, 2013 

Scott's father once told him that an orchardist is not someone who grows fruit, but rather a person who plants trees.  "If you aren't planting, then in a few years you won't have anything at all," he would say.  Fruit trees die and need to be removed, and the space filled with a new tree.  Otherwise the row is left lacking, like a mouth with missing teeth.

The Old Golden Delicious Block 

 And so our orchard sports trees of different ages, sizes, and varieties.  If Bosc bring good prices one year, we would be inclined to plant a Bosc in a vacant spot.  If the empty space was in a cold pocket, we may choose to plant a frost-tolerant Bartlett instead.  And sometimes, an entire block of fruit trees must be removed and replanted; all the teeth must be extracted and replaced.

This in mind, last fall we took out a one-acre block of Golden Delicious trees.  Prices had been consistently low and their quality was poor.  It was time.

These Goldens were eighty-to-ninety years old, full-sized apple trees standing 18-to-20 feet tall.  You could stroll down the rows shaded from the heat of summer and the wind of winter.  These were the trees that complete strangers would drive by, stop, and gape at.  We once found an entire family posing for photos beside them.  In the autumn, the foliage rivaled a New England forest and the leaves carpeted the ground below.  At blossom time in early May, they were a mass of pink and white, covered with pollinating bees.  And yet, they had to go.

This year's letter is a tribute to our orchard's oldest block of trees, the Golden Delicious.  It is time to tell their story.

Ninety years ago, in the 1920s, our neighbor and shirttail cousin, Orv Coates, purchased the land and set about to put in an apple orchard.  He laid out his rows on a 30-foot setting, planting Black Winesaps, a wonderful tart apple that kept well in the limited storage of the time.  This was a new variety that was fondly called the "Black Sap", and unlike its parent, the Winesap (which was mottled red and green), Black Saps colored to a deep black red, and were much in demand.  For twenty-five years Orv harvested beautiful and profitable crops.  But by the 1950s tastes were changing and the upstart Red Delicious began to take over the market.  No one wanted Winesaps anymore.

When reworking an orchard a grower is always trying to outguess the future.  It takes about ten years before a new tree produces fruit.  Which varieties will be good to have down the road?  Orv's son, Sherm, guessed that red Delicious might not be the right apple to have, so he took a chance and grafted his Saps to another rising star, called the Golden Delicious. Time would tell if he had chosen well.

It turned out that the Golden was a great apple.  Tart and sweet, it was good for cooking and wonderful to eat out-of-hand.  The apple commanded a premium price and the trees were extrememly productive;  some of Sherm's trees routinely picked thirty bushels or more (with a bushel of apples weighing about 33 lbs.).  In the mid-1960s, Scott's father and uncle bought Sherm Coates' nine-acre orchard that bordered their own and continued to harvest large crops of fruit.  These past thirty years have found Scott tending the Goldens on the "Coates Place".

This is a block of apple trees that survived the forty-below freezes of the winter of 1968-69, the drought years of the late 1970s, and the annual challenges of pests and weather.  But in the end, it could not overcome the market.  In the 1980s, with the introduction of Galas, Granny Smith, and Fuji, the price for Golden Delicious tumbled.  Only truly premium, picture-perfect Goldens could compete with the new varieties.  Sadly, the Coates Place sits in a low area where cold air pools up; chilly temperatures can blemish an apple and lower its value.

We made an arrangement with some neighbors who wanted to work in exchange for firewood, and on a clear fall day in October 2012, their chainsaws brought the Goldens down.  The trees were cut up and hauled away.  Our flail ground up the remaining smaller limbs and with a rented track hoe we wrenched the three-foot stumps from the ground.  What had once been an enchanted forest of majestic trees was now reduced to an acre of uneven ground and empty space.


 In March, once the snow was gone, we ripped out all remaining roots, tilled the ground, and sweetened the soil with lime.   Gypsum was added for its trace of sulfur.  Scott and his crew staked out new rows and put in a water-saving irrigation system.

We reserved the planter (picture a machine that takes the place of people with shovels) and on a cold, sunny morning Scott, Benito, and Antonio plowed five-hundred baby pear trees into the ground in just over two hours.  The rest of the day was spent painting the tiny, three-quarter inch trunks white to prevent winter damage, wrapping them in tree guards to keep the mice from eating the bark, and watering them in.  By day's end we didn't have an orchard but we did have a field of four foot tall sticks with potential.

Last summer was a good growing season; our young trees virtually jumped out of the ground and sang.  It will be about seven years before the Bartletts bear fruit and twelve to fifteen before the Anjous produce a crop of any size.  During that time we will train each tree's limbs, apply special fertilizers, and modify equipment to fit down the now narrow rows.  If all goes according to plan, by 2020 we should see a pear crop in what once was Orv Coates' Black Sap orchard.

We hope you enjoy your fruit. And if you are ever driving down Coates Road in Cashmere, take a look at the new orchard. Now you know the story.

Scott, Maggie, Elly and Rob

October 24, 2012

Welcome to our 2012 Annual Letter. We were beginning to wonder if we'd ever get it written and launched!

Harvest was late-starting this year.  On Saturday September 9, 2012 we were dinking around re-readying things that had been ready for a week.  That evening our family made the annual pilgrimage to the Chelan County Fair for pig viewing, rollercoaster rides and unusual foods we later wished we hadn't eaten.  Later, driving home in a steady drizzle, we watched as thunder and lightning began to erupt over Yaksum Canyon.  It turned out to be the biggest electrical storm in over a decade, igniting 166 wildfires in Chelan County alone -- and those were just the recorded ones.

For over an hour the four of us sat wrapped in blankets on the front porch theater seats.  The sky was alternately pitch black then piercingly white, with flashes so brilliant we weren't really sure our eyes should be open.  The thunder had long since sent the two dogs and two cats into hiding.  The chickens?  We assumed they were hunkered down in their hutch doing whatever chickens do when the heavens unleash their fury.

By the next morning, small columns of smoke surrounded us. One day later, many of these fires had been extinguished but a half-dozen were visibly growing within a couple of miles from the orchard.  The smoke began to settle in earnest and we grumbled and whined, never suspecting how bad it would become or that it was to be our nemesis for nearly an entire month.

We delayed harvest for several more days, hoping for an improvement in the air quality.  The morning it became apparent that we had to start picking or risk losing the crop, the smoke was too thick to see more that three trees down a row.  The sun never glowed brighter than an orange, and the barn, one hundred feet from our house, was barely visible.

Even worse, only two of the eight or ten pickers we had lined-up for work actually arrived.  An inversion held the smoke close to the valley floor, and many pickers were wisely choosing to work further east and south where things were sunny and pleasant.  We knew that all of our orchardist neighbors were experiencing the same shortage of help.

We had Benito, who has been with us since he was a teenager in the late 1970's, and his grown son, Antonio.  Scott's cousin Larry arrived from Seattle to drive tractor and help with the multitude of odd jobs.  Wearing face-masks and looking more like operating room personnel than farm workers, Harvest 2012 officially began.  Begrudgingly.

The bottoms of the bins were dusted with ash, and tree branches puffed a fine, white powder when you touched them.  Instead of harvesting the customary seventy bins a day, we were lucky to get eighteen.  Day after day passed under these conditions as the fires grew and an after-dark pyrotechnic display danced on the ridgelines around us.

As time went by, we developed our own standards for assessing visibility in the new, smoky world.  If at 5:00 a.m. the barn was visible from the front porch, however ghostly, it was a "good day" and we would pick.  There were very few good days that first week.

Each day we fell further behind and the fruit grew more mature.  There was no change in the weather, no wind to scour the valley out, no rain to settle the ash.  A few hundred feet above us it was sunny and hot, the autumn climate we were more accustomed to.  Something had to change.  And it did.

On the morning of the seventh day of harvest, four more pickers (or were they angels?) arrived to rescue us from disaster:  Epifanio, Geronimo, Leoniras, and Bulfrano.  Apparently other growers were finishing up, and even under these conditions there were people who needed work.  Because we were all wearing masks, it was hard to recognize our new co-workers whose voices were unfamiliar to us.  Production increased and harvest began to normalize, which helped get our minds off the smoke.  However we knew things were too good to last, and we were right.

As fruit matures, it produces a gas called ethylene that accelerates the ripening process by changing the starches in the pear to sugar.  (Think banana in a paper bag.)  Ethylene also loosens the fruit stem at the point of attachment to the tree.  This is normally an orderly and predictable process.  During a good year, we keep up with the "drop" and most of the fruit goes into a bin before falling to the ground where it cannot be retrieved due to food safety concerns.

This year we learned something about wood smoke that we never knew: It is high in ethylene gas.  The smoke shrouding the valley was actually loosening pears to the point where each time a limb jiggled from having a pear picked, several pears nearby fell to the ground.   The race began, as we scurried to get the crop off the trees before it covered the orchard floor.

At about this point in our story, a wind blew in.  The good news was a steady wind meant a few days respite from the smoke.  The bad news was it also fanned the fires and knocked the pears to the ground even faster.  Within a couple of days the wind stopped, the smoke returned, and now walking became hazardous with all the baseball-sized pears underfoot.

As you can tell, Harvest 2012 was a kind of nuclear winter here.  Even the wildlife was affected.  We observed Red-tailed Hawks perching low on tree branches, unable to see to hunt from their customary heights.  We saw or smelled more skunks in a few weeks than in the last thirty years.  And the vole population seemed to triple.

Two days after harvest ended a cleansing rain came and everything began to look instantly brighter.  The crew had stayed until the last pear was picked and the quality of the fruit was excellent.  Enough of the crop went into the bins to pay the bills and what landed on the ground will fatten both deer and mice all winter.

Best of all, we think we'll do it again next year.

Scott and Maggie

October 24, 2009

Humans are creatures that name:  places, things, and nicknames.  At their best, names are our private language.  They tell our story, and the story of our place. 

There is a place in our orchard that we call 'The Nursery'.  It lies behind Scott's grandparent's house, due north of the old chicken coop.  No longer a nursery, the large, fifty-year-old trees spread above us like green umbrellas; some of them pick twenty boxes of fruit each fall.  

If one looks carefully, the tree rows in the nursery are narrow and don't line up well.  They run in a distinctly different direction than the rest of the orchard.  Here, for half-a-century, we called the nursery, The Nursery; not because of what it is now, but for what took place there a long time ago.

In the winter of 1958-59 an arctic mass of air settled over our valley and stayed for a week or so.  After several days it had killed much of the orchard - old, mature apple trees.  Faced with the expense of purchasing thousands of saplings, Scott's father, Gene, took a job at Tree Top and Uncle Lyle became a nurseryman.

Lyle purchased seedling roots, set them out behind the chicken coop where Grandpa Hal usually planted potatoes, and raised a crop of trees.  Over the next two years he weeded, budded, and finally dug up these young trees, setting them out in the now empty orchard.  Just to make things easier, Gene and Lyle left 60 or so trees right where they were in the nursery rows, a bit unevenly spaced but functional.  The transplanted trees are the ones we farm today in most of the orchard, including this place we still call the nursery. 

As often as not, names like The Nursery outlive the reason for the naming, yet remain as part of the fabric of our farm.  Other examples?  'The three acres,' divided out in 1930 and sold, only to be taken back when no payments were made.  'The old Anjous,' trees planted in 1917, only two of which remain.  'The enchanted forest,' once a block of huge Red Delicious trees, now a collection of Galas.

For the most part a name, once in place, lives forever.

As Latino people have come to work on the farm, Spanish has become our common language.  Our employees are masters at naming just about everything.

'The Hammans' Place has become 'La Huerta de Pat', where twenty years ago our neighbor Pat picked the entire four acres by himself using our John Deere crawler pulling a stone-boy with two bins placed on it.  Only one of our crew remembers who Pat was, but they all call this part of the property La Huerta de Pat.

'The Coates' place has become 'el pasto,' named for a cow pasture that used to border the south end.  That pasture has been a cherry orchard for the past twelve years, but the name lives on.  And this year the crew added a new one:  'la cara de vaca,' a slippery steep hill, so steep that it ... well, it's as steep as a cow's face.

Scott's VW pick-up, for reasons that escape him, is known as 'la pinguina' (the penguin).  Benito named Luis' car,  a tiny white Toyota, 'el suspiro' (the sigh) -- to much laughter from the the crew.  The big 65 horsepower tractor is, of course, 'el macho'. And even though el macho is blue, the smaller Ford Dextas (also blue) are known as 'los azules.'

People have not escaped from this lingua franca.  As los patrones, we refrain from using nicknames for our employees, yet we know that among them there have been a couple of gordos (fatty), a papa (spud), an alacrán (scorpion), a gallo (rooster), and a Carlota (named for the French empress who ruled Mexico at one time).  While these names may seem insulting to gringo sensibilities, they are tolerated in good humor by their owners.

As the years go by, accruing multi-generational names and stories, we pass them on to our children and friends.  Our orchard and our lives become more and more interwoven.  We are the current keepers of this story, knowing that there is a bit of the telling in each piece of fruit that we grow.

And now if someday we ask you to take the penguin and help Fatty haul some ladders to the nursery, you will know exactly what to do!

Scott and Maggie