While the friends — and competitors — of Bill and Jeannette Evans of Yakima, WA, were pretty persuasive in their Apple Grower of the Year nominations, the editors of American and Western Fruit Grower were impressed with some other nominations as well. They came from all over the country, including one for Ray Keller, also of Yakima, who also submitted one for the Evanses. The other runners-up included Mark Orr of West Virginia and Wisconsin’s Tom and Andy Ferguson. The information for the finalists comes from their websites and those who nominated them.
George S. Orr & Sons, Martinsburg, WV
Mark Orr is a third-generation grower of apples and stone fruit. He successfully produces approximately 600,000 bushel of fruit a year on a 1,000-acre orchard in Martinsburg, WV.
“He, through many years of research and development, has managed to keep good quality fruit coming year after year into our packing operation, which we distribute all over the world,” wrote Packing Operations Manager Don Dove. “He is very progressive in his use of the integrated pest management practices which allow us to save money and limit the amount of spray materials we use in the orchard.”
Mark is carrying on a proud tradition. During the depression days in the mid 1930s, George S. Orr Jr. helped his grandfather by working on his small fruit and berry farm. This farm was located just west of Martinsburg on the east side of North Mountain (Arden). As a young man, George joined the Navy and traveled to California where he met his wife, Juanita. With fruit growing in his blood, George S. Orr Jr. returned to West Virginia and purchased a 60-acre orchard in 1954 and began a lifetime of growing fruit. With help from his family, he increased the size of his orchard to 350 acres by 1979.
When George S. Orr Jr. passed away in 1989, he was 62. He left his business to his wife, Juanita, and their three sons (Mike, Mark, and G.W.). The corporation George S. Orr & Sons, Inc. owned 1,100 acres of orchards at that time, producing 500,000 bushels of fruit annually. The brand was “My Three Sons.”
George left a legacy of determination, innovation, and competition.
In 1995, the family opened Orr’s Farm Market, a retail market to serve the local community. Over the years the Orr family has diversified into specialty crops, a pick-your-own operation, and agritourism events and activities.
Today, George Orr’s children and grandchildren are continuing the agricultural path that he paved for them. Pristine orchards are tended to by George’s son, Mark Orr. A state-of-the-art packing facility is managed by the eldest son, Mike Orr. The office is run by Mike’s wife, Vicki, and daughter, Julie. Julie’s husband, Phil Bolyard, is IPM manager and helps with orchard operations as well. Mark’s eldest daughter, and Dove’s wife, Katy, manages the farm market.
Apple King, Yakima, WA
Ray Keller has worn a lot of hats during his many years in the industry, from chairman of the board of the U.S. Apple Association on down. Dalton B. Thomas, the president Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers in Wenatchee, who nominated Keller, noted Keller has been in the business for nearly 50 years.
“He is hard working, honest, and a great candidate for (Apple Grower of the Year),” Thomas wrote. “He has represented our industry for years.”
Keller’s story begins a century ago, after emigrating from Germany, his great-grandfather, Phillip Keller, purchased his first orchard in 1914. Phillip Keller’s son, Walt, began farming 20 acres in 1939, which included 15 acres of fruit. He farmed this orchard until 1952 when he and his brother purchased a packing and storage facility. A few years later Walt bought out his brother, purchased another 25 acres of orchard and planted an additional 25 acres adjacent to his original orchard.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, he was joined in business by his two sons, Dick and Ray Keller and son-in-law, Mike Saunders.
Additional orchards were acquired and in 1968 Mt. Adams View partnership was formed. In 1973, Keller Fruit was incorporated and the partnership was farming approximately 440 acres of orchard.
Keller Fruit and its principals purchased 53% of Northwestern Fruit and Produce Co. stock in 1979 which consisted of a large packing and storage facility including approximately 800 more acres of orchard.