IN THE EARLY 1990s, Calvin Collins, a third-generation orchardist in Selah, took out a loan to increase his acreage. By 1996 he’d paid off most of it by selling Bing and Rainier cherries and Pink Lady apples to a local warehouse for pennies a pound. Then a terrible freeze came through, and he lost his entire crop. He thought Collins Family Orchards was finished and even applied for a janitor position in Yakima.
Fortunately, he managed to sell the land he still owed money on, and his family limped along with fingers crossed.
For farmers, explains Collins, there are no guarantees, and a few bad seasons can ruin you.
Still, after the freeze Collins realized he needed to try to protect himself from ever having to face such devastation again. He recruited his kids to sell fruit at farmers markets, where they could get almost 10 times the warehouse price, and he began to diversify. By growing a wider variety of fruit, Collins has extended his growing season and sells fruit that no one else does. His new business plan worked so well that it saved the farm. His son, Brian, joined him to run distribution soon after he graduated from college with a degree he paid for by selling fruit. Today, Collins has three full-time employees and hires two to four more to help pick.
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Collins began laboring in orchards when he was only 8. He and his 13 siblings worked on weekends and after school, but one by one they left to find easier jobs. Even he left to paint X-ray machines in a sweltering factory. Then when Collins was 20, his father asked him if he’d like to join him in the orchards, and without hesitation Collins agreed.
After so many years on the farm, Collins still manages to explain what he does with wonder and contagious enthusiasm: how to graft a bud, how the wind machines push down the inversion layer to raise air temperature, why he uses mating disruption instead of bug spray and mows instead of using weed killer, and how proud he is that his orchard floor is covered with earthworm excretions because it means the soil is healthy.
Besides apple, pear, cherry, peach, nectarine and apricot varieties, Collins grows new crosses like pluots, plumcots, apriums, nectarplums and peacotums. He’s researching new fruit all the time, looking for intense flavor and high sugar content. And in order to keep up with Brian’s CSA program, which has been doubling every year, he’s constantly planting young trees and grafting new varieties to established trunks. The 3,000 trees in his orchard are so diverse that even fussy varieties are bound to find a pollinator if they need one, and those old trunks with great big root systems support varieties that wouldn’t normally survive the local weather.
Over the years, Collins has perfected his own grafting, pruning, thinning and picking techniques that result in strong, quick-growing trees that produce super-sweet, high-quality, good-sized fruit that ripens evenly and is (relatively) easy for his pickers to reach. His growing practices result in smaller quantities of better quality fruit, a trade-off he’s happy to make.
Now, two of his young granddaughters dream of joining the team. The girls follow Collins through the orchards, doing whatever he’ll let them do. He’s farming acreage owned by his father and his grandfather before him, and the future looks as sweet as a Sugar Pearl apricot.
Seattle freelance writer Leora Y. Bloom is the author of “Washington Food Artisans: Farm Stories and Chef Recipes.” John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.