Posted September 13, 2004, Editor’s note:
Jerzy Boys farm, a 5-acre organic pear and apple orchard
in the Lake Chelan Valley of Central Washington State, has
been family owned and operated by Wynne Weinreb and Scott
Beaton since 1989. Wynne and Scott learned their trade by
working for conventional growers for a decade while saving
for their own place. The couple has helped pioneer organic
tree fruit farming in their area and has received notoriety
both as representatives and advocates for the small American
grower. Earlier this year, Wynne and Scott were honored at
a program for Successful Organic Farmers at the 24th Annual
Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove, Calif. Here
is there story in their own words, as told to the crowd gathered
to honor them:
Scott and I were both raised on the East Coast: I grew up
in the heart of New York City, and Scott grew up surfing on
the sandy beaches of New Jersey. We met in Boston, where we
both received our undergraduate degrees. I was working days
as a research librarian and nights as a goldsmith and jeweler.
Scott was working as a sports coach for low- income inner-city
youth and introducing them to wilderness adventure
In 1979, we embarked on a year-long motorcycle trip across
the continent. When our motorcycle broke down near the town
of Lake Chelan, Washington, we decided to settle down and
raise a family. We built an environmentally low impact fieldstone
house on 10 pristine acres on the foothills of the North Cascade
Mountains, living in a teepee and then in a Mongolian-style
yurt. Half of the year we worked in conventional and organic
orchards in Washington with pome fruit, and half of the year
we worked in Florida with citrus fruit. That was where we
were in 1987, when we decided to start a not for profit organization
that initiated Central Washington’s first recycling
center, an idea that brought the town into running a municipal
recycling center, which Scott runs and which has been a model
for other local initiatives across the state.
|"Wynne... actually sorts and
sells and researches all day long at the same time...
Plus, she manages to call me during that, too, and makes
sure that I am doing what I am supposed to do. "
In 1989 we started Jerzy Boys Farm on a virgin strip of land,
6 miles north of Lake Chelan on a breathtaking south-facing
bluff overlooking the mighty Columbia River. Jerzy Boys now
grows seven main apple and pear crops, emphasizing organic
soil maintenance, organic pest control, meticulous pruning
and closely monitored harvesting practices, in order to maximize
flavor, texture and color, producing what we think is some
of the best fruit in the world. Some people agree.
In October 2002, House & Garden magazine called Jerzy
Boys pears “the most flavorful pears from American soil.”
In December 2003, Jerzy Boys farm was profiled in a documentary
film Broken Limbs, by Jamie Howell and Guy Evans, as a new
model for the Washington State Apple industry. And Jerzy Boys
farm is featured in a forthcoming book on organic farming
by Linda Egenes and Rick Donhauser called Green Angels.
I am going to talk first about how we got into organic farming,
then Scott will talk a little about the orchard techniques
that we think make our product special, and lastly we will
mention how we handle some of the market challenges facing
the organic producer and the small specialty farm in today’s
I first became interested in agriculture in the 1970s when
I changed my own eating habits to organic cheese, fruits and
vegetables and whole grains in response to the ranching and
animal husbandry practices that have led to today’s
problems with mad cow disease, salmonella in poultry products,
and widespread human resistance to antibiotics. We began reading
widely about organic farming and began growing our own gardens
Year-round we supply much of our own products to ourselves
and our two teenagers. In fact, when we began honing our practical
skills by working in both temperate and semi-tropical fruit
production, we became all too familiar with the relentless
applications of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, as
well as the petroleum-based fertilizer fumes that permeated
our clothes, houses and the air we breathed. Kids were being
sprayed at the bus stops adjacent to the fields.
We have worked in orchard agriculture for 10 years, learning
everything what we could about pruning, grafting and harvesting,
skills that you have to see and practice.
While Scott continued to manage the recycling center, we decided
to invest all of our saving in acquiring the sheltered 35-acres
plot of pristine land that began our organic orchard. We were
later able to add an additional 30 acres. This virgin south
bench on the bluff over the Columbia had ideal qualities for
pome fruits farming. The site was also part of the area’s
federally funded irrigation project, designed to help promote
an agricultural economy without which it would be impossible
to farm the bluffs.
The nutrient-rich program for building our sandy soil imparts
such wonderful flavors to the flesh and skin of the fruit
grown here in our region, this combines with the warm days
and cool fall nights that are needed to produce that satisfying
crunch that consumers crave in pome fruit. We selected the
secluded location because none of this land had ever been
harmed by the conventional pesticides use that was so pervasive
in the upper growing region in the Columbia River Valley.
In planting our acreage, we developed each small block as
time and money allowed, so that we would not find ourselves
overreaching in production before we had an adequate storage
and distribution system. We now have 3,000-plus trees on 5
acres, although we have had as many as 6,000-plus trees in
production on 10 acres.
An important part of our planning involves marketing, being
aware of culinary trends, trying to anticipate the next vogue
in fruit and trying to create a sustainable market of consumers.
To this end we emphasize diversity. We started with the Gala,
Braeburn, and Fuji apples and Red Clapp’s Pears, chosen
all on the basis of their great taste, but now we have expanded
to the Honeycrisp apple, du Comice and Taylor’s Gold Pears.
We have three dozens heirlooms and new cultivars under evaluation.
This has also helped us weather the inevitable, yet always unexpected
This year, for example, it looks like the Honeycrisp grafts,
a strain developed in Minnesota, will be the sturdiest variety
to weather the surprisingly brisk subzero weather that we
have been having. With all the tempting new cultivars and
heirloom revivals we always have to balance the practicalities
of marketing our product against the pleasure and excitement
of testing a new fruit in the field. Sometimes we will road
test a variety by planting a few trees or a row to see how
they do during several seasons. We reassess this variety over
3 to 5 years and decide whether to expand the planting or
We continually renew our cover crops and try to regraft or
replant our trees so as to have up to 20 percent of the orchard
in renewal. When we were first setting out, we grew our own
rootstock and grafted the cultivars ourselves. The interesting
in more exotic and unusual varieties has enlarged the available
support system, so we now get already grafted and licensed
trees or, if needed, we order dormant scions from other collectors.
We have the help of agronomists and grafters who assist us
in testing and evaluating different techniques for grafting,
pruning and crop management on our particular site.
At this point let me hand the discussion over to Scott to
talk a bit about our agricultural choices and challenges.
I also want to give a big hug to Wynne, because she is really
the full-time worker out there. She is the boss. I try to
get by her went I get out there, but it’s tough, she
runs the place and she actually does all the spraying, which
is interesting, she does all the packing, and she has kept
us in business by selling our fruit and we appreciate all
the people that have helped us with that.
Organic farming is a lot of fun in some ways—you get
to grow and eat your own healthy fruit, you get to test new
varieties and work with composting, which is really a lot
of fun, and you get to share your healthful product with people.
Our area has a pretty perfect area for growing in a lot of
ways. Most of the time, we have warm days and then we have
cool nights. We are located 17 miles from a 6,000 to 7,000
foot elevation, so get a lot of cold air coming down at night,
and then the elevation works its way up until 12,000 feet
in the middle of the Cascades, so we are right on the other
side of the Cascades. We have irrigation from the federal
irrigation project that is in the area.
We are at the end of the road, but one of our biggest challenges
has been, and still is, trying to build up a sandy desert
soil with no organic content. So when we started, we planted
cover crops and we got into composting alfalfa, cow manure,
minerals and organic fertilizers in our compost. It seems
to work pretty well if you can get that stuff composted in
there. We have been able to come up with an old tractor with
a bucket which was one of our biggest tools that we had gotten
at that time and that move the materials, and we also have
a rotovator with which we can mix the materials. We can usually
compost all our fruit waste in our compost piles.
|"Organic farming is a lot of
fun in some ways—you get to grow and eat your own
healthy fruit, you get to test new varieties and work
with composting, which is really a lot of fun, and you
get to share your healthful product with people."
And then the fun thing, too, is we can grow a lot of our
summer vegetables in our old compost pile area, so we can
get some really good food out of our own compost piles. We
really regard composting as one of our most important assets;
we have tried to put on about 5 tons an acre almost every
year. We don’t always get that much on there, but we
really try to do that, and even though we haven’t figure
out how to apply the material with machines—we have
to do it by hand—so that part of the composting job
really gets to be a big job. But we think that is worth it.
On our cover crops, we basically try to replant them as the
orchard grass tends to come in and take over the cover crops.
Sometimes we have to do that every couple of years, or three
years, and we choose a diversity of flowering cereals, herbs
and leguminous plants for cover crops, in order to attract
beneficial insect life. To control rodents our region is rich
in natural predators, by that I mean rattlesnakes. I don’t
know how many gophers they really get, but we are basically
surrounded by wild land everywhere, like a lot of you.
Rattlesnakes are a very usual occurrence in the field and
that’s how we got our labels. Nobody has gotten hurt,
but people look at us kind of oddly when we talk about them
as being our friends, and they really get scared of them when
they come up on you or you run into them. We try to not kill
them too much and that kind of stuff, but they are around.
We apply mineral organic fertilizers to the orchard floor
on a regular basis, and we look at our soil samples every
year, and we make decisions on which nutrients to apply. We
spray and foliar feed, Wynne is a big fertigator and she is
really into that; the neighbors think she is brewing up witch’s
brew or something, and they are all “what is that lady
doing with that 50-gallon barrel,” but she is really
into fertigating, so we get some stuff out there that way.
Some pests are more tendentious than others. We have problems
with thrips, birds, wild ants, mildew, gophers…But of
course these are pests that everybody in apples knows. We
have used pheromone mating disruption ties since we began,
but we have a very windy side with lots of air drainage in
a very narrow strip of land, and the pheromones haven’t
been efficient. Good work through hygiene is imperative, and
we try to keep the trees thinned well. We need to be able
to look at the trees and if they are having deadheads out
there they need to be removed. We have to be able to see them;
we can’t leave the fruit too thick. We want our sprays
to work in there, and we do have to spray periodically for
Growing new varieties is challenging, as we explore the susceptibility
to bitterpit, low production, and alternate bearing. We recently
turned to trying to spray thinning flowers instead of hand-thinning
methods that we used to use, and that is always interesting.
We spray fairly regularly, and we try to pay attention to
what is going on in the field to keep ahead of potential pest
One thing we are considering in evaluating commercial production
of a new variety is the cost of maintaining it. Some of the
new varieties often you have to spray at least eight calcium
sprays on some of these varieties because they are a little
difficult. But weather has been the most constant challenge
for us, as I am sure you are all aware. We really try to keep
our trees carefully shaped—not just because myself and
one of the other guys at work are over 50 so can’t have
the trees too big now; when you are older you can’t
get on that 18-foot ladder. We also are trying to give every
apple the perfect spot on the tree, so we want to get rid
of the crap on the bottom of the tree. We believe that a good
apple, if it’s going to be a really tasty good apple,
has to have its spot, and that’s always a challenge.
So we will actually go through pruning three times during
the year and then, our last pruning during the summer, we
will give every apple a spot that doesn’t have it then
and get rid of what crap is on there.
We are taking gamble. We want to get our fruit out in the
open but we also have to deal with extreme temperatures because
we had many days over 105 this year. And the skin temperature
can’t get over 115. So we do some spraying for sunburn.
But I guess pest haven’t been really our worst problem,
weather extremes have been. We have had hail storms, early
harvest freezes (we went down to 7 degrees during harvest
last year, which damaged a lot of buds for this year). This
year we had a windstorm at 60 miles and hour during harvest.
But out worst storm was on our eleventh wedding anniversary
on July 9, 1994, when 1 ½ inch of hard, spiky hail
destroyed our crop and ripped our trees just to shreds. But
it was kind of a blessing because we ended up having to sell
our own crop and learned how to do that, and we went to farmers
markets and tried to convince people that the dings were not
some kind of a disease, and it actually gave us some experience
We figured out that at this point we needed to pack our own
crop and market our own crop, so we stored it in a shed 25
miles away. It was 1995, and the demand for our organic varieties
was very high. At that time, we sold mostly to Seattle supermarkets
and a large national distributor. In 1996, it became apparent
that, if we can pack our own fruit inside, we can make things
easier for others and save time.
Well, typically the big apple packing sheds are now using
computerized equipment that cost millions of dollars to run
millions of pounds of fruit. We invested in a small packing
shed and cold storage. We had a metal pole building built
on a slat we poured, and we bought a salvaged compressors
and evaporators. Meanwhile, Wynne was visiting all these old,
obsolete packing sheds, and she was looking for equipment
that we could put to use, and she basically savaged the queen
of the packing lines, a 1936 Cutler Grader, which is a virtually
indestructible packing line/sizer, grader. These were used
for decades until the ’70s when the sheds consolidated.
We were able to salvage two complete systems for $500. For
many, these machines were a thing of the past, but for us,
a 1935 breakthrough in the apple industry was a beautiful
piece of equipment, perfectly suited for us.
Setting up the packing, sorting and storage facilities, there
is a lot of optimized quality control. Wynne uses a sorter,
and she actually sorts and sells and researches all day long
at the same time, so she is, I guess, multitasking there. Plus,
she manages to call me during that, too, and makes sure that
I am doing what I am supposed to do.
This means we can make sure the fruit is not being bruised
or picked too early or late; the end result is that we can
grade the fruit, and it goes into the boxes to our high standards.
Wynne knows what the fields guys are doing, she knows who
is damaging the fruit, and she will pretty much take care
Wynne has developed a Marketing plan that enables us to get
information about our product to the public and to reach them
through a variety of venues, some mailed to the costumers,
some gourmet catalogs and some sold on site, as we did for
a Japanese tour group recently.
I am going to finish up just saying that I was kind of a
migrant laborer for about 10 years, picking millions of pounds
of apples. I can tell you I had no desire in eating these
apples, they didn’t taste good.
When we decided to go into this crazy business, it was a
big challenge. Now I can honestly say that there is such thing
as a wonderful apple, and I eat apples every day and they
can be very wonderful.