Chelan Fresh is proud to represent the growers of Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties in Washington State. Each month we will introduce them to you in our “Meet the Grower” series. Check in regularly with our blog – To The Core - to find out what’s happening in the orchards that produce some of Washington’s Finest Mountain Grown Fruit.
This month we are talking with Johnny Griggs from Griggs Orchard in Orondo, Washington.
Chelan Fresh: Hello Johnny thank you for taking time out of your day to chat, I know this is a busy time of year!
John Griggs: No problem, and yes we are busy!
CF: Why don’t you start by telling us about your orchard.
JG: Sure. We farm apples, pears and cherries in Orondo, Washington. At the moment we have about 290 acres total and hope to continue expanding in the future.
CF: Lets talk about cherries, since the season is upon us. What varieties are you growing now?
JG: Our main variety of cherries are Orondo Rubies and Rainier cherries.
CF: Both delicious varieties! How is this cherry season sharing up for you?
JG: I think our crop looks really good this year. The season is a lot later than it has been the last couple of years and we are leaning more towards normal, whatever “normal” is. It has been a strange couple of years, as any grower will tell you. As of today we estimate picking to start around June 20th, last year it was clear back in May.
CF: Yes, it seems every season looks vastly different in the growing industry. How long have you been a grower in Washington State?
JG: I grew up in the orchard as a kid, but I started working in the orchard in my college days so about 24 years now. Our family homesteaded here in the 1880’s. I believe I am a 4th or 5th generation grower.
CF: Sounds like a family run operation like so many orchards around Washington. Is that the case for Griggs Orchard as well?
JG: Yes, this is very much a family business. My wife is an RN but also does our books and my dad is still quite involved as well. Of course, my kids grew up in the orchard just like I did.
CF: What does the future hold for Griggs Orchard, do you foresee your kids getting involved?
JG: My son, who is 21 now, is going to Wenatchee Valley College and also working for Auvil Fruit full time. I am glad he is getting different experience in the field, but his ultimate goal is to come back and farm here someday. My 16-year-old daughter is more interested in the business side of the orchard, such as marketing. It will be great to see them take over someday, although I still have a lot of years left in me!
CF: What is happening right now in the cherry orchards?
JG: Right now, we are just making sure the nutrition is up to par for the cherries, keeping mildew out of them and letting them do their thing. By the end of next week, we will have a really good idea of what we will end up with.
CF: What are you looking for to determine readiness?
JG: We mainly look at maturity, size, color and sugar content. It’s really a balance between science and intuition. And we gauge a lot based on taste.
CF: I know that cherries don’t keep well like apples do, how does that change the way you pick?
JG: Because cherries don’t keep we have to focus on quality so the consumer gets the best tasting fruit. We pick Orondo Rubies and Rainiers 5 to 7 times during the season based on size and color. First, we pick the outer cluster then come back a few days later when the next layer has better color and size.
CF: That sounds labor intensive, how do have to setup your crews for that picking schedule?
JG: We have about 150 cherry pickers this season and we get 50-60 of those from the H2A program, which we are thankful for. They will be here until the end of October. We have another group coming in June that will help with the bulk of the picking. We also have 60-70 people that work for us on a regular basis.
CF: What does your future of the cherry growing industry look like for you?
JG: I just came back from looking at cherries in California and there are new varieties of reds coming out that are pretty exciting. I think they will fill some different niches in the market but we are not planting anything new at the moment.
CF: And lastly, what is your favorite fruit to eat?
JG: I loved peaches when we were growing them! But now, my favorites are the Orondo Ruby™ and Rainer cherries for eating. And the SugerBee is my favorite apple variety that we grow.