Apple Growers Of The Year: An Unmatched Work Ethic
Bill and Jeannette Evans, who’ve been married now for 67 years, are a throwback pair. Bill looks the quintessential veteran cowboy-type, tall with an ambling gait. He peers at you with piercing blue eyes, issuing words like they were gold coins. Jeannette isn’t exactly chatty herself, but with a palpable fighting spirit, she might be described as spry. Though it’s likely no one ever describes her in such a way, as it makes her sound old, and no one would say that.
One recent day at Evans Fruit in Cowiche, WA, just outside Yakima, she was found smack dab in the middle of the sales desks, talking away on the phone. This is nothing unusual. Though the Evanses are in their mid 80s, they both work full time — and then some. Climbing into their SUV for a tour of their orchards, Jeannette has to move a box out of the way she uses in late June to take samples of fruit from their cherry orchards.
“We work six days a week and on Sundays we make the rounds of the orchards — and that’s a full day,” she says.
All that hard work has not gone unnoticed. Bill and Jeannette Evans received not just one or two nominations as American and Western Fruit Grower’s 2014 Apple Growers of the Year; a whole host of growers backed them for the honor. (See “Conspiracy Born Of Respect.”)
Like a lot of Great American Success Stories, the Evanses’ tale begins in The Great Depression. Bill’s dad, Guy Evans, brought his family to Washington from Arkansas in 1936 in search of work.
“Basically we were migrant workers,” Bill says.
Guy Evans got a job at C.M. Holtzinger as a foreman, and that’s where Bill started too, removing suckers and thinning at the age of 12 for 50 cents an hour.
They bought their first piece of property in 1949, a 10-acre parcel on Tieton Drive.
“We still have it, too,” Jeannette says proudly.
Bill nods in agreement and says: “We just kept adding and adding and adding from there.”
They built their first packing shed in 1959, in Naches Heights. By then they already had four children — they would have a total of five — and they were busy people.
“We had to work like beavers to feed them,” Jeannette says. (Years later their two oldest sons passed away, and the other doesn’t work in the business. Their two daughters are involved, as are some of their grandchildren.)
Besides packing their own fruit, another move that paid off was they were one of the first growers to plant apple trees in the Mattawa area, about 75 miles east northeast of Yakima.
“Everybody thought it was too hot,” Bill explains, “but I looked at the water rights and saw we could do overhead cooling when the temperatures got up to 85 degrees.”
So in 1980 they began overhead cooling of orchards in Mattawa. Jeannette also inherited some land in the area, and they purchased more, and today they farm 2,700 acres there. If you add that to the 6,000 acres they farm in the Moxee and Yakima areas — 90% apples, the rest cherries — they farm more apple acreage than any grower in the country.
“That’s what they tell us,” Mrs. Evans says casually, but not without a hint of pride.
Spreading their acreage out over a wide geographical area is another strategy that has really paid off. First, it spreads out the risk of getting hit by hail, which can wreak havoc if you farm numerous contiguous orchard blocks. Just last year alone, Bill says they lost a total of 240,000 bins to hail.
Second, their orchards are located at a variety of elevations, which means the apples ripen at different times, allowing them to get by with “only” 2,500 workers or so at harvest time, when they are picking 15,000 to 18,000 bins a day.
“We start in the lower elevations and keep working higher,” Bill says. “If they all came off at one time it would be mission impossible.”
In addition, Bill likes farming at higher elevations. While the yields might not be quite as high, the fruit is of exceptionally high quality and stores extremely well.
The Evans are also risk-averse when it comes to borrowing money. They have been careful not to overextend themselves, and pretty much pay as they go, Jeannette says.
“We were burned very badly in the first few years by biting off more than we could chew,” she says. “The lesson I would tell the kids and grandkids is don’t ever extend yourselves and be careful how you invest your money.”
They’re really looking forward to showing their grandchildren how to succeed.
“We’ve got grandchildren coming into the business and they’ve got some learning to do,” she says. “But they will, they’ve got enough of their grandparents in them.”
Success will only come, however, if you hire the right people, say both Evanses.
“Surround yourself with as good a people as you can find,” Jeannette says. “You’re as good as the people you surround yourself with.”
Pay particular attention to what skills potential employees bring with them, and how ready they are to adapt to change.
“In this day and age you have to depend so much on technology,” she says. “Some are technologically inclined, others aren’t. If you’re not, get some people who are because it seems to be going that way more and more.”
Above all, though, if you are single-minded about success, you’d better hire people who share your mindset.
“We try to pick really good supervisory people whose work ethics are wonderful and will get out and do whatever it takes to do the job,” Bill says. “We owe a lot of (our success) to the people who work for us.”