Good Fruit Grower

January 2014

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Family business FINDS NICHE hen Kole Tonnemaker's grandfather Orland established the family orchard on the Frenchman Hills near Royal City, Washington, almost 50 years ago it was surrounded by nothing but sagebrush. Orland worked as a Washington State University Extension agent in Ephrata in the 1950s when the Columbia Basin irrigation project was beginning to be established. He bought 132 acres of undeveloped land in 1962, a couple of years before he retired, and planted a small cherry, pear, and apple orchard five years later—despite being strongly discouraged from planting fruit trees in such an unsuitable location. Today, Tonnemaker Family Farms is surrounded by large corporate orchards in what has since proven to be a prime tree-fruit production area. Kole says as the bulk of the tree fruit industry consolidates, it's left opportunities for a few small operators to stay small and sell directly to consumers. Kole, 54, and his brother Kurt, 51, grew up working in the orchard. After graduating from the University of Idaho with a degree in plant science, Kole went to work with his grandfather at the farm. When Orland died suddenly in 1981, Kole was left in charge. by Geraldine Warner For a while, Kole sold his fruit through one of the state's big fruit warehouses. After several years of poor returns in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the family decided to do their own marketing. Kurt heads the marketing effort while Kole and his family are in charge of production. Along with 63 acres of apples, pears, cherries, and stone fruits, they have 25 acres of vegetables and 35 acres of hay, all organic. Each week in the summer, Kurt and his elder son, Joseph, take their fruit and vegetables to 15 farmers' markets in western Washington while Kole's family sell at a few farm markets in eastern Washington and Idaho. Nowadays, some markets operate year round, and the Tonnemakers dry W The Tonnemakers say industry consolidation has left opportunities for small operators to sell directly to consumers. 26 JANUARY 1, 2014 GOOD FRUIT GROWER and freeze produce to sell throughout the winter. Their on-farm retail store at Dodson Road, though off the beaten track, is open year round. Though selling the fruit themselves is far more work than simply hauling it to the warehouse, Kole feels it's worthwhile. "We've tried to take responsibility for whether we make a profit or not, rather than just being upset that it didn't sell for enough when it went to the warehouse," he said. "We came to a fork in the road where you could either get a lot more acreage and make a little bit off an acre or farm more intensively. We chose to farm more intensively." In recent years, Washington fruit growers have enjoyed good returns from their warehouse, but Kole is still committed to direct marketing. A bonus is that they meet their customers face to face and get feedback about how people enjoy eating their fruit. "It makes you feel you're doing something that's worthwhile," Kole said. "And sometimes that's more important than making a huge amount of money." Customers appreciate that the food is fresh, they know where it comes from, and they have an opportunity to interact with the grower, he said. Taste "I think it really changes how you approach what you grow, how you grow it, and how you harvest it when you're going to deal face to face with the person who eats it," said Kole. "Our focus is on things that taste good. That's our primary concern." The Tonnemakers have earned several accolades. They received the 2011 Local Hero Award from Edible

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