For the second installment of our “Meet the Growers” series we sat down with 4th-generation grower John Freese to talk about family, the challenges of growing organic, the threat of labor shortages and the joys of raising kids on a farm.
Chelan Fresh (CF): Hi John and thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
John Freese (JF): No problem, it’s my pleasure.
CF: Can you please tell us a bit about your orchard? Where are you located?
JF: Sure. We’re up on Pogue Flats, just North of Omak in Washington. Our family farm is only about 105 acres but we added another lease 3 years ago, and then my brother Peter bought about 40 acres last year, so all together we’re farming about 300 acres. We grow apples, pears and cherries.
CF: How long have you been a grower?
JF: I joined my Dad 4 years ago and my wife and I are buying the farm from my parents. It’s been in our family since 1919 so we’re approaching century farm status. We’re pretty excited about that. I’m the 4th generation of farmer.
CF: Wow that’s amazing! There aren’t that many century farms around here, right?
JF: I know that in our area the irrigation project didn’t happen until 1912, so our farm is definitely one of the early ones here. But there are other places that have natural water flow, so they were around quite a bit earlier than us.
CF: Do you have a sense of what’s happening with the orchard now in terms of the next harvest?
JF: It’s still pretty early and there is a lot that happens between now and the next harvest. We’re in the cold months so the trees are dormant right now. We’re in the process of converting quite a bit of our acreage to organic and there’s a learning curve. It’s kind of exciting to see what happens each year as we’re using different methods. It’s maybe a little more exciting than some would like!
CF: Can you tell us about what happens during a transition to organic?
JF: Well, you need to document that you haven’t used any unapproved substances, like chemicals, nutrients etc., for 3 years. For example, we can’t use pressure treated wood for trellises because it contains a non-approved chemical. There are many rules around organic that we’re learning about, haha!
CF: Concerns about a growing shortage of labor seem to be making the news these days. Are you impacted?
JF: Thanks to God we’ve been able to maintain a steady workforce. I give my father all the credit for establishing a great working relationship with a couple of families in Mexico. Many of our best ideas have come from our crew and they’re just a great group of men and women. It feels like one big family operation here.
CF: What’s your favorite fruit?
JF: I’m not picky, I love whatever is ripe! Maybe a slight preference for those early apples like the Gala and Honeycrisp. They’re the most special since you’ve been waiting so long to get a good apple, it’s just a real treat.
CF: Thanks so much for your time. Is there anything you’d like to add?
JF: One of the other things that I love about being back here is being able to see my kids grow up eating fresh fruit and running around. I see them developing the same love of the land that has run in my family for the last 4 generations. It’s just a great blessing being on the farm. In spite of the fears and the uncertainty of growing fruit, there’s just a lot that’s neat about raising a family here.