In retrospect, the speed at which the Washington apple industry has changed is really quite astonishing.
It’s not that I didn’t see it firsthand. I’ve been venturing up to Washington’s apple country for nearly 20 years, about two to three times a year, and because it’s by far the nation’s apple power, I keep pretty close tabs.
But on my most recent trip, to photograph and interview our 2016 Apple Grower of the Year, Scott McDougall of Wenatchee, WA, I saw the industry anew.
It’s because I was accompanied on the trip by a business associate who was seeing the industry up-close and in-person for the first time. He was amazed, and by extension, I was re-amazed.
I have a bit of insight on this topic because in 2004, we published a 32-page history of the industry to tie in with the 100th anniversary of the Washington State Horticultural Association (WSHA), which has since morphed into the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.
I interviewed 26 of the current and former presidents of the WSHA, and looking back it seems to me the industry has changed almost as much in the dozen years since that publication as it did in the preceding century.
It wasn’t all that many years ago that ‘Red Delicious’ was king. In the late 1990s, I interviewed a large packer/shipper who said their entire operation was set up to process and pack the variety. I asked what would happen if ‘Red Delicious’ fell out of favor, and he dismissed the question as nonsensical. Fewer than half a dozen years later, that packer/shipper had ceased to exist.
It’s not just all the new varieties, or the size of today’s huge players, it’s the intensity of the planting. I invited a group of industry people to lunch while I was up there recently, and they agreed it had been about a decade since they had seen a planting that involved what the average citizen would describe as a tree.
Now it’s all about fruiting walls. Trees are planted on trellises. If shown a picture of a modern, intensive, $50,000-an-acre apple orchard, I daresay the average person would guess it was a vineyard. The industry landscape has completely changed.
On my first trip to central Washington, in the spring of 1998, Extension agent extraordinaire Tim Smith introduced me to a few of the growers he considered the most progressive. One was Doyle Fleming, who in 1996, like McDougall, was named Apple Grower of the Year.
Something else Fleming shared with McDougall was an appetite for new varieties. Fleming, who died far too young, was among the first to plant ‘Galas,’ and McDougall certainly wasn’t far behind.
While I was talking with the affable Fleming and his wife in their kitchen, he suddenly flipped me an apple I had never seen before. It turned out to be my first taste of a ‘Cameo.’
Always inventive, I recognized Fleming as the grower who had appeared on the cover of our magazine a few years before in one of his most recently planted orchards, with its innovative, intensive layout.
He was pictured with his head between the trees, which were planted just one foot apart.
I knew Fleming, who I would never have the pleasure of speaking with again, was an original thinker, but I had no idea at the time I was seeing a close-up of the future.