After a century of farming, land use is 'next big issue'

Growers 'learning to shout'

Orcharding in the Hood River Valley has been around longer than most area residents can remember.

So too have orchard families like the Laraways been a constant fixture in the community, with roots than run deeper than those of most fruit trees in the valley.

Is it possible, though, that an industry which so many take for granted might not be as healthy as the fruit upon its trees? And what would happen to the families who depend on farming as their livelihood were the industry to take a permenant turn for the worse?

While the promise of new technology and better marketing brings a ray of hope to family growers, it stands to be blotted out by the clouds of foreign competition, increasing consolidation and low fruit returns.

"Given the current prices, in another two years I see a lot of people walking away from orcharding," said Jon Laraway, whose farm encompasses around 100 acres in the Pine Grove area. "In a good year you make $150 per bin with Anjou pears. This year (2000) it was around $80 to $100. Even for the cheapest grower, it costs $120 a bin to produce that fruit."

Farmers aren't the only ones who stand to lose if the current trend continues.

"If the valley's farmers went belly-up, I don't know how the school district would survive," said Laraway, who pointed out that orchardists pay a significant chunk of the taxes that fund area schools.

Even without revenues from fruit, the taxes on growers' property and buildings alone comprised 13 percent of the district's budget last year, according to the Hood River Assessment Office.

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What families like the Laraways find troubling about the current situation is the potential breakdown of family traditions.

Jon's great-grandfather, William Fouts Laraway, moved to Hood River in 1904 from his home in Iowa. Besides being an accomplished photographer, he ran a jewelry store and was adept at repairing watches and glasses.

W.F.'s oldest son, Percy Bion Laraway, cleared the 16 acres of land that his father had purchased and planted apples and a few strawberries. Percy's son Bill grew up on the farm and went into the business after a stint in the Navy and his marriage to Zella Hendricks. They forged a strong bond -- the couple celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary last summer.

Percy bought the orchard from W.F. in 1925, and it changed hands again in 1949 when Bill purchased it and added more plots.

"One hundred acres is under the average now," said Jon. "We're surrounded by families with 200-plus acres, some with packing houses, like the Stadelmans and the Moores."

Bill stayed involved with the orchard after Jon took charge, and around 20 years ago they phased out the red delicious apples in favor of pears.

"I stopped driving the fruit to the packing house two years ago, when I turned 75," said Bill. "Now I take longer vacations. But the farm office is still in the Big House, so I know what's going on."

Besides Jon's parents and his wife, Debra, his sister Janet and her husband Leonard Wood help with the business, and live on the aptly-named "Home Place" plot. Leonard and Janet met in California and later moved back to Hood River, where Leonard got a job at Stadelman's before working at the Laraways.

Around the same time, Jon left for Oregon State University, where he studied horticulture with the intent of returning to the farm. He met Debra in The Dalles, and the pair were married in 1982 and had a daughter, Justine, in 1986.

With so many family members returning to the orchard, it was a bit hectic trying to find a place for everyone to live, and, as Debra put it, the family played "musical houses."

"Many of today's farm houses come with 100-200 acres, and if you want only 15 or so, you can't just buy the land, because there's a house on it," said Jon, discussing expansion difficulties. "That's a contrast to the early 1900s -- you had a place and a house, and that was enough."

"You can't buy that much land and then expect to make payments on it with today's returns," said Jon. "It's a big money investment, and not many around here could do it for more than a year or two."

"You'd better have something to fall back on," added Zella.

Not everyone works on the farm full-time.

"More and more principal farm people are getting part-time jobs off the farm," said Jon.

Indeed, Janet is a secretary at Riverside Community Church, and Debra works for the Mortgage Market. Other entrepreneurial opportunities are always on the horizon, too.

"At the moment, just about all the land is passed down through families," Jon said. "In this day and age, you can't just buy some land and make a profit."

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From the time when Percy cleared W.F.'s original plot to the present day, the Laraway family has seen the orcharding industry undergo several revolutions, and more could be in store.

"The process of hiring labor has changed," said Debra. "We have one full-time worker, and the rest are seasonal. At the height of the season, we have about 25 pickers in August for the Bartletts and Anjous, and about 12 come around the first of January and prune through the winter."

Housing is key for orchardists who want to guarantee the presence of labor, according to Debra, who pointed out that while workers tend to move around the valley to find work, they invariably make the housing provider top priority.

"Before World War II, there used to be hoboes and whole families that followed the harvest," said Debra. "They didn't have the aluminum ladders and picking bags we have now, and had to deal with those old wooden ladders."

Bill recalled that the first Mexican laborers flooded in after the war.

"In grade school during the late 1960s you'd see Mexicans at the beginning of the year, but they'd be gone by October," said Jon. "Now, Pine Grove is 75 percent Hispanic all year round. That's a common trend in a lot of places."

Alongside the increasingly permanent presence of Mexican labor came numerous technological improvements.

"Frost control was a big innovation," said Debra. "Before that, you just lost your crop."

"In the early days, they would spray trees with water to keep them from freezing," said Jon, who described the chemical reaction that occurs when energy given off by freezing water produces heat that can stave off the trees' death.

"You had to keep the trees wet all the time, though, which was difficult," said Jon. "The first big advent was frost fans around 1974."

Growers sprayed more than just water; pesticides played an important role in the expansion of orchards.

"Spraying was the first impetus to the size increase of orchards, along with sprinkler irrigation after the war," said Bill. "Then the use of bins, as opposed to boxes, was the firecracker that lit the fire. Bins involved less handling and were easier to move." (One bin is the equivalent of roughly 22 boxes.)

"All of a sudden you could handle beaucoup fruit," said Bill. "The bins came into play in the '50s -- that was the innovation decade."

Improvements in railway storage allowed for quick shipping to Europe and increased demand for fruit. As a result of innovation in refrigeration and large-scale cold storage, however, smaller packing houses were driven out of business. It just wasn't cost-effective to run a packing house with expensive new technology on a smaller property.

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There were other factors that made it hard for small farms to survive.

While having multiple houses on their land was convenient for the Laraways, there is a downside to the abundance of homes on farmland.

Land use is a critical issue with many area orchardists; strict laws zoning the land for farming would make it difficult to use it for any other purpose.

"We have to farm, and it's tough to switch to a different crop -- most people can't afford that," said Jon.

"Besides, this valley grows the best pears -- it has the ideal soil and temperature," said Leonard.

"We can't retire and switch to, oh, fishing lures, and we can't sell the land," explained Jon. "We need to be able to make a living, and if we can't, the farm use regulations will have to go out the window -- there will be an uproar in the courts.

"It's the next big issue facing the valley and the state," he added. "They force you to farm even when it's not profitable. I think that's the equivalent of the government taking your land. It's very detrimental to the community."

Complying with environmental regulations is another necessary task. Methods have come a long way since the days when Bill would drag a pesticide hose by hand through the orchard all summer long, spraying lead and arsenic to combat codling moth.

"There's a misinformation problem," he said. "It's so much safer than it used to be. People just need to keep it in perspective."

"You'd get skin cancer from the sun before you got something from pesticide residue on fruit," Jon said.

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Growers face a fresh set of complications once their product leaves the orchard.

Most of those difficulties are economic. Even without market concerns, both chemical and labor production costs alone have ballooned in recent years.

When the Laraways sell their fruit, it goes to packing houses that pool the fruit of all their growers and pay out the average price for the whole season. The final payment doesn't arrive until the very end of the year, when all the fruit has been sold to market.

"What's frustrated us the most is that retailers sell the fruit for the same price, no matter what it cost us," said Jon. "But growers are starting to knock at the door and stamp their feet."

Competition from countries like Chile, Argentina, and perhaps even China someday may pose the biggest economic threat to Hood River growers, suggested Jon.

In fact, China produces around six times as many pears as the U.S., though most Chinese pears are consumed within the country.

"I'm definitely worried about overseas production," Jon said. "They don't have near the regulations we do, or the labor costs. I want to tell the government, 'Don't let their fruit come in, it's an uneven playing field!'"

"The government could help us with tariffs," said Zella.

Said Jon, "I think that Argentina and Chile can hurt us, but I don't think they can put us out of business."

Getting back to roots -- the Laraways feel that hope may also lie in the potential development of size-controlling root stock, which the apple industry has already implemented.

"Root stock could revolutionize the industry," said Jon.

"Modification of root stock reduces labor, and gets them up there on shorter ladders, too," said Leonard.

If a size-controlling stock could be developed, it would mean increased production right off the bat. As Bill explained, smaller stock would mean more trees per acre. Once they reached a certain size some would have to be removed, but in the intervening years overall production would increase because of a more efficient use of space that utilizes more soil.

"Root stock controls might get us up to 500 trees per acre, foreseeably," said Bill. "But they don't exist right now.

"The next revolution would be to mechanize the harvest," he continued, "but I don't see that coming soon. Pears are more delicate than apples -- it would be harder."

No one seems to know when these leaps in farming technology may occur. But despite this and other uncertainties of farming today, Jon is staying grounded.

"I think the fruit industry has remained pretty lucrative and hasn't felt the pinch like other agricultural fields until the last few years," he said.

Still, no one likes to see orcharding take a turn for the worse. And if something isn't done soon, Hood River may lose one of its most valuable assets.

"Farmers are people who don't shout the loudest," said Jon. "Now we're finally learning to shout."

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