Grady Auvil has a message for apple growers everywhere.
“We live in strange times. The exciting part of growing apples is the fact that the greatest return ever for the dollars invested in apple orchards will occur in the next 10 years. And, some of the largest losses ever, will also take place.”
At a time when prices for some varieties are below the break-even point and many apple growers are struggling just to stay in business, the notion of great profits might leave some thinking the elder statesman of the Washington apple industry has slipped a cranial cog.
Not so. And that’s why American and Western Fruit Grower selected him as the second recipient of its Apple Grower of the Year award.
More than being a successful grower, Auvil is an industry leader. His boundless spirit, support for research projects, and his willingness to share his knowledge with others are all factors contributing to his selection for the award.
“Most apple growers are good horticulturists, but few have a lot of marketing know-how,” says Paul Tvergyak, a county farm advisor and American and Western Fruit Grower columnist. “Grady Auvil has that rare combination of grower ability and he’s an entrepreneur.”
The proof is in the business. This year, several apple operations went out of business, and the prospect for more to follow is grim. Auvil Fruit Company is prospering while others are falling by the wayside.
“We’ve been here (Orondo, about 20 miles north of Wenatchee, WA) for 62 years,” Auvil says, adding, “and we’re having one of our best years this year. The reason is we’re doing the right things the right way.”
Auvil’s keys to success in the apple industry are surprisingly simple. He plans ahead, analyzes, and, he isn’t afraid to make mistakes. Auvil firmly believes other apple growers can do the same if they are willing to look to the future and make changes.
“To be successful, growers have to look at the whole system — growing, harvesting, packing, and marketing,” he says.
For Auvil, this begins with the selection of the best varieties, growing them in the most expeditious manner, and taking the best possible care during harvest and packing.
Taste Determines Success
Auvil’s measure of growing success is taste.
“If a consumer gets a bad apple, he won’t buy apples again for a long time,” he says.
Auvil agrees much depends on the retailer for getting the final product to the consumer, and maybe more time needs to be spent educating produce managers on the proper care and handling of apples. The point, however, is that it all with the grower.
“If you plant the right varieties, in the right system, with the right marketing structure, you’re going to make a lot of money,” he says.
Too Many Red Delicious
Auvil believes there are not too many apples on the market, just too many of the wrong varieties. If and when when the Red Delicious production is reduced 20% to 30%, growers of those varieties will be making money again. But, Auvil says the long-term future of the Red Delicious will be as a “minor player in the apple world” because it is being replaced by varieties that “better serve the public.”
In addition to better varieties, he sees the domestic market growing because Americans currently are among the lowest per capita consumers of apples. He sees the potential for the market to double in the next decade.
Two varieties Auvil sees as potential moneymakers in the 1990s are the tart Granny Smith, and Fuji, a sweet reddish apple.
The important thing about Fuji is that it doesn’t lose its eating quality until it shrivles. That’s important because it makes it easy for consumers to get a good apple. He admits there’s still a great deal to learn about growing and storing Fjui, but it will be a major player in the coming years.
Auvil grows about 600 acres of fruit. Currently, about 10% is devoted to Fjui and another 10% is devoted to Fuji and another 10% to Red Delicious. But, Red Delicious trees are being grafted over to Fuji.
Auvil also grows Gala and although this year it brought $40 a box, he doesn’t see the varitey as a major player in the future.
“Gala has growwer problems and storage problems,” he says. “It doesn’t store well after two or three months.”
The vast majority of his acreage is devoted to Granny Smith, his bread and butter crop for more than 10 years.
“There is no other tart apple that will compete with Granny Smith,” he says.
Auvil has made money while other s have not because 20 years ago he looked into the future and saw two things: massive increases in the amount of red apples coming on the market and a Consistently higher price being paid for Granny Smith.
“At first, I couldn’t believe a green apple had a chance,” he says. “But it consistently brought a higher price, so I paid attention.”
High Density Apples
Following a trip to New Zealand, he began planting Granny Smiths intensively. Auvil was one ofthe first Washington growers to use the Tatura trellis system.
“At that time we thought 300 trees per acre was high density,” he says.
His Granny plantings range from 600 to 2,000 trees per acre.
When he first broke into the Granny Smith market, he knew the variety grown on seedling rootstock had problems bearing fruit. He started his on M.26. The dwafing rootstock lends itself to high density plantings. To support the trees a structure was needed. Through trial and error, he has come to find the Tatura trellis “the ultimate growing system” for Granny Smith.
Auvil also found that by spreading branches on a trellis, he gets better quality fruit with an easier system to manage. A benefit is that the majority of the trees can be picked from the ground. This makes multiple pickiking easier.
“Nature has certain growing rules which must be followed. But, nature’s rules can be improved upon,” he says.
Young trees are planted at a 60% angles and as they grow, they form a sort U-shape at the top.
“The energy of the tree is evenly distributed, it doesn’t all run out at the end of the branches,” he says.
In the end, the tree has the same vigor in the bottom (low-bearing area) as in the high-bearing areas.
Learning to grow apples on the treelis system has not come without mistakes, and Auvil readily agrees he’s made his share. But mistakes are something a grower mus accept in order to be succesful.
“Some people look at those who have judgment as having a gift. But, it’s nothing but an active mind that surveys all the information, makes an estimate of what might be, and compares that to what actually happens,” he says. “By doing this repeatedly, you get closer and closer and closer to making the proper guesses. That’s judgment. In the end, it’s still a guess. Now, I look back over my life and can say I made a lot more poor guesses at 60 than I do at 80.”
Investing In Research
In order to help learn from his mistakes, Auvil is a firm believer in research. Although not a joiner of organizations by nature, Auvil is a 45-year member of the state Horticulture Association’s Research and Scholarship committee.
“Research is the lifeblood of civilization,” Auvil says.
He has contributed time, money, and land to study growing systems, diseases and other problems that confront the industry. He also helped for the Washington State Research Commission about 20 years ago. This group collects $0.25 a ton on both processed and packed apples. Last year, it distributed more than $1 million in scholarships and research grants.
Although a firm believer in integrated pest management practices, he doesn’t see the future in organic growing many do. Also, he believes many of the food safety issues making the headlines today are politically motivated, without any genuine concern for public health.
Auvil believes it’s up to the industry to educate the public.
“Mainstream civilization is so far removed from agriculture, they have no comprehension of what it’s all about,” he says.
Education can begin at the retail level where he believes consumers are making progress. He sees the world market turning to fruit that taste good with less emphasis on appearance.
“This is especially true with red apples,” he says.
Above all, Auvil is most produc of the people accosiceted with the business, especially those who make up Auvil Fruit Company.
“Cost of performance is secondary to performance. Good, well paid, employees will make you money,” he says.
Almost all of his management staff worked their way up through the ranks like general manager Paul King, who started picking in the orchards when he was 17. Today, King oversees the 150 to 300 employees. Auvil believes in sharing the wealth during good years when he returns 40% of net gains to employees. Also, an employee who has spent two years with the company is eligible to purchase stock.
In spite of the problems and challenges, Auvil has never had a desire to be anything but a fruit grower.
“For me, fruit growing is the most wonderful life in the world. You never cease to find something to learn, it involves a lot of people, and it takes discipline and hard work. And, it’s very profitable
if you guess the right way.”
Reflections on Grady
By Harold T. Rogers
The circumstances of my first meeting with Grady Auvil have vanished from memory. Probably it was in the late 1950s, when I began traveling regularly in Washington apple conuntry for Western Fruit Grower, and I probably went to see him because someone had told me about an anusual and newsworthly practice Auvil had adopted,
Over more than a quarter of a century, I talked with him whenever I could, at Orondo, Wash., or at whatever meeting brought us together. Invaribly, he had something new to show me or tell me. Often, his restless search for better methods drew on current research projects by state or federal scientists, and their test plots were common in his orchards.
I did not write about him as often as I talked with him. More than most growers I know, he developed a production system that is singularly adapted to his orchard sites and his economic resources and goals. kind. But he has been remarkably agile in avoiding the disasters that sometimes afflict adventurous growers.
On this point, I heard a relevant comment one day when a group of us were looking at his initial double-row plantings of Granny Smith at Orondo. When someone foresaw problems of equipment access as the trees spread into the rows, another man said, “If that happens, Grady will think of something.”
Auvil may be best known among growers for innovative production practices, but over the years I came to see that much of his success rests on a shrewd sense of market opportunities. The most conspicuous example is the Granny Smith apple. When New Zealand apple growers, defying conventional wisdom, found a significant market in the U.S. for a tart green apple, Auvil was immediately interested, and the result is history.
Two soft fruits — Redhaven peaches and Rainier cherries — offer striking examples of Auvil’s ability to exploit small but profitable niche markets. The Redhaven peach was for some years much superior to any other variety in its season, but it did not do well in California. Seeing a potential Western market for a high-quality fruit, Auvil developed a comprehensive program. To deliver high maturity, he devised a system of picking and packing that reduced handling and bruising.
The Rainier cherry is a white variety of high quality that is also highly susceptible to bruising. Following the successful strategy he had adopted for Redhaven and later modified for nectarines, Auvil developed a field-packing system that made Rainier cherries into a profitable item.
In all of his ventures, Auvil has been guided by a basic policy: to deliver superior dessert quality to consumers. With evangelical enthusiasm and in every forum he can find, he has urged fellow growers to adopt this policy. In principle, it is a position that no one can challenge.
What distinguishes Auvil is that he sees this goal in terms of the whole process of production and marketing, from selecting varieties to the checkout counter. By his own example, he has demonstrated a marketing opportunity for premium quality that deserves more attention than it has received.