Many of the orchards in Chelan valley are a family affair, with women playing a critical role in running smooth operations and growing the business. In our blog series “Women in Agriculture” we sit down with them to discuss their roles and thoughts on the industry.
This month we checked in with Megan Azzano. Megan and her husband Mike own and operate a family orchard and fruit stand in the Omak area.
Chelan Fresh (CF): Hello Megan! Can you start by giving us a little background information?
Megan Azzano (MA): Hi there! Well, Mike and I met at Washington State University. I am originally from Renton, WA but I love the eastern Washington area so we moved to Omak five years after we graduated. Mike grew up in the Omak area, his family’s been growing fruit here for the last 40 years.
We’ve been farming apples, pears and cherries for the last 10 years. We farm a total of 330 acres of fruit and we also grow hay. Luckily, we had someone lease out the hay last year which has been really helpful. You have to do what is doable!
CF: What varieties do you grow?
MA: Like many others in the industry right now we’re transitioning. We are saying goodbye to a lot of our older Reds and Goldens to focus more on high color Fujis and Galas. We are also transitioning a lot of our fruit to organic. We’re grafting some orchards over to SugarBeesTM and are really excited to get those going. We will also be planting some Cosmic Crisps this spring. It will be fun to see how that all works out. My favorite varieties are Jazz and Jonagolds… I wish we could grow more of them!
CF: Have you always worked in the orchard after moving to the area?
MA: I was working outside of the farm when we first moved here, doing Substance Abuse Prevention and community organizing, which was a lot of fun. But after I had our second daughter I wanted to be home more with girls when they were little. The past four years I did book work for the orchard, which is a lot of work.
CF: You mentioned that your husband’s family has been growing in the area for over 40 years. Have you joined the family business then?
MA: Absolutely. In regard to the growing operation, it’s a team effort and I am involved in all of the decision making as well. We’ve been working with Mike’s parents to plan out the next five years of production, we are constantly remodeling and trying to have the ground be as efficient as possible for us. I also keep up the spreadsheets. Numbers don’t lie. As much as it hurts to remove 50 acres of reds, it’s an easy decision to make when you look at the balance sheets.
We have started acquiring shares in the corporation, and six years ago we did some restructuring so Mike and I are slowly making our way to full ownership. We also started our own orchard with a fruit stand that opened last year. The fruit stand is on Rock Canyon on the way up to Conconully.
CF: Do you enjoy operating the fruit stand? How do you feel it contributes to your business?
MA: The fruit stand is another way to get agriculture in front of people and it gives us the opportunity to talk to all kinds of people from Seattle and Canada who have no idea how agriculture works because they have never seen it in operation. We take the opportunity to show them around the orchard and explain the differences between the varieties. I really enjoy that part of the business, it’s been a lot of fun.
We just applied for a value-added producer grant, and we’ll know in April whether not we’ll get it. The grant is awarded by the USDA to individuals who can show they are adding value to a raw commodity, which is what we feel the fruit stand does. The grant money would help us offset the cost of having an employee at the stand and allow us to purchase outside fruit from other local growers.
CF: Growing has been be a fairly male dominated industry in the past. Are you encouraging your girls to get involved?
MA: We are absolutely encouraging women in agriculture with our girls. They help me run the fruit stand in the summertime. They often set up their own little store where they sell popsicles. They are hustling for sure!
We have two little girls, Emily will turn seven in May, and Susie will be five in October. We have another one on the way who is due right in the middle of cherry season! We have taught them that when there is work to do you need to roll up your sleeves and do it. We always have them helping out whenever they can, they are always with us. It’s a privilege to have this kind of lifestyle, which is probably not evident to them now, but they’ll understand better as they get older.
CF: What’s your outlook for the future?
MA: I hope there will still be room for the small guy to succeed. It can feel overwhelming given the volume that the industry is producing these days. For us as a family, being as efficient as possible with our land will continue to be important. We plan to keep growing quality fruit and staying positive. I also see potential in agri-tourism growing in the future. Providing that education component is important. I see my friends’ interest in what we do, there is a growing sense of curiosity and a desire to be more connected to the food that we eat.