Long-time farmer takes good with surprises

Sound Consumer | August 2001

by Alicia Lundquist Guy

When I visited Scott Leach at his orchards in April, all was gentle springtime sunshine and serenity. We moved slowly through his 60 acres of organic fruit trees, stopping to examine the endless number of delicate white blossoms on the Bartlett pear trees. Nearby, a hawk perched high in the line of poplar trees bordering the orchards circled nervously, protecting its nest.

A fourth generation farmer in the Yakima valley, Scott has seen a lot of things change over the 25 years that he's run his own orchards. He was one of the first orchardists in the area to use organic growing methods and, for more than a decade, has supplied PCC with Bartlett and D'Anjou pears and Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and Granny Smith apples. His enthusiasm for his craft and the future of organic agriculture, is contagious. "After the second year of organic, I couldn't wait for the sun to come up until I could go out and get to work," Scott said. It was an exciting challenge to figure out new methods of doing things based on prevention.

Yet even for the most dedicated of farmers, challenges arrive that no level of prevention can master. On June 27 this year, nature dealt a wild card. Scott was out on the tractor in a block of Granny Smith trees when he noticed a strange-looking, voluminous cloud moving in fast. Its mauve surliness encouraged him to head for the shed to avoid a good drenching. "I had the tractor in eighth gear, as fast as it could go. I felt like Dorothy on her bike with Toto in the basket!" Close to the shed, the wind and rain began. Then the rain turned to hail and the wind began to howl. Nearby it was clocked at 108 miles per hour. "You couldn't see 100 feet in front of you, the hail was so thick," Scott reported. "At that point, I was concerned for my life and trying to decide if I was safer in the truck or in the shed."

It hailed for only 15 minutes. In the city limits, such a storm is a marvelous diversion. For a fruit farmer in Eastern Washington, it's devastating. It was immediately apparent that much of his crop was badly damaged. Many of the trees had been thinned in the prior week to encourage healthy growth and plenty of sunshine on the fruit, ironically making them more vulnerable to pelting chips of ice. The pears fared better than the apples, but were still hit hard. Scott can't tell at this point what the total damage is. He may have only one-sixth of the Golden Delicious crop he was expecting. It will be a long wait to see what can be salvaged. Labor will be another hard issue. With less of a crop, many of his loyal pickers will have to seek work elsewhere.

In the midst of this unexpected setback, Scott still maintains his positive outlook. His hope is that, for every cluster of fruit, two or three pieces were protected by the damaged fruit in front of it. Now he must watch and monitor carefully to see if the hail has made the pear trees more susceptible to fireblight. Although a few trees came down in the wind, Scott notes that trees are pretty resilient. "I don't have my life tied up in this crop," he reflected. "I have my life tied up in this farm; and I didn't lose the farm. One year out of 25 isn't too bad."

In a few months, fall will descend upon Scott Leach's orchards. The now-battered leaves will drop to the ground and the trees will go dormant for the winter. They'll look much the same as they do every November. This is when Scott will breathe a sigh of relief and start thinking about the next hopeful cycle of growth in the spring.

What can we do?
In a late June windstorm in the Yakima Valley, many farmers were hit hard. Mark LaPierre lost 40 percent of his organic cherry crop. Scott Leach suffered major damage to both his organic pear and apple crops.

PCC has a special relationship with both of these Eastern Washington farmers. As with any good relationship, one can't help but share the sense of sorrow when the other is undergoing hardship. As Leach said earlier in the spring, "Organic farming is society's last chance to hold onto the family farm as we know it." Part of the responsibility in that statement is to be supportive in both plentiful and sparse years.

As a consumer, there are simple things you can do to support these growers.

Be aware of where your food comes from. When you see signs next to produce indicating the farmer who grew it, you know a purchase will be supporting a local family farm.

At a more elemental level, take the time to really appreciate each piece of fruit before you on your plate. Eat it slowly; savor it. It is full of love, hard work, and sometimes even hardship.

Let the farmers know you care. Drop a note to Mark and Scott — they'd love to hear from anyone who's enjoyed the fruits of their labors.

Scott Leach
P.O. Box 1822
Zillah, WA 98953
Email: leachday@wolfenet.com

Mark LaPierre
17381 Yakima Valley Hwy.
Granger, WA 98932

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