Orchard diversifies into a winery

By Heather Smith Thomas

For the Capital Press

Williamson Orchards maintains a thriving orchard, growing a wide variety of tree fruit, and most recently has been growing wine grapes and making wine.

The Williamson family has been farming for 105 years — since the original 80-acre parcel was homesteaded in 1909.

The orchard was planted in the 1930s. Mike Williamson, along with two other fourth-generation family members — his sister Beverly and cousin Patrick — operate the farm and orchard.

“We’ve taken over from my father Roger Williamson and Patrick’s father, John. They were farming here since they were kids. Before them it was my grandfather John, and he took over from his uncle Henry. Most of our farm is now orchard but we lease out some land to row crop farmers,” Mike Williamson says.

The fresh fruit is sold through their farm store.

“We also sell some through farmers’ markets that supplement their local produce with fruit. We grow and sell about 40 different varieties. Depending on the year, we may have peaches in early July, and some varieties we sell until Halloween,” he says.

Their store offers fresh fruit nearly year-round, thanks to their cold storage facility — a big insulated room with a refrigeration unit that maintains the temperature at 33 to 34 degrees.

“It has concrete floors so we can wash it out, and use a forklift to bring pallets or bins to our fruit stand. We pack fruit in boxes for sale, as needed,” Mike Williamson says. “If they are stored in the packed box for a long time they go bad; they keep longer in the bins.”

Most years, Williamsons also make fresh apple juice. It’s been popular, and a great way to utilize any apples that aren’t top quality as fresh fruit. Nothing goes to waste.

Their cherries are all sweet cherries — which can be used for pies as well as eating.

“I tell people this is simply a pie cherry that doesn’t need sugar,” he says. “They are larger and nicer, and you don’t have to add sugar because these are already sweet.”

They grow several varieties of sweet cherries including Kiona and Benton.

“We also sell Bing, the kind everyone knows, and a late-season cherry called a Skeena,” Mike Williamson says. “These different varieties extend our season. Some ripen earlier than the Bing and some later. These are relatively new varieties from research stations in Washington state, bred for taste and size. A lot of them outperform Bing cherries in flavor.”

At this point their fruit is sold at the farm store, but the family is considering U-pick this year on a newer planting of cherries, the Kionas and Bentons. “They’re on a lower-growing rootstock so the trees won’t be as tall, making it easier for people to reach and pick from the ground,” Mike explains.

During fall harvest, up to 50 workers are hired for picking. Other seasons are also busy — pruning and taking care of the orchard.

“We keep 10 to 15 people working in the orchard, driving tractor, pruning, dormant spraying, controlling weeds or thinning peaches, plums, apricots and apples in the spring. The thinning crew makes sure we get a good crop of the right size fruit. It gets better size and flavor when thinned,” he says.

The family has also diversified into wine grapes.

“In 1998 we planted our first vineyards. We contracted with a local winemaker and also made some wine for ourselves, in 2001. Idaho’s wine industry was experiencing a rapid growth phase and reinstated the Idaho wine festival. We got the gold medal Best of Show in the first competition,” he says. “Now we’ve increased our grapes to about 45 acres, and have a tasting room here on the farm.”

This created another year-round product for their farm store.

“We really like the wine as a product; it keeps and just gets better with age. It doesn’t go bad, like a peach or cherry,” he says.

The Williamson farm has another generation coming on. Mike and his wife Monica have four children, and his sister Beverly and her husband have two children.

“My seven-year-old son wants to grow up to be an orchard worker like me,” Mike Williamson says.

Williamson Orchards and Vineyards

Location: Near Marsing, Idaho

Owners: Williamson family

Orchard: Since mid-1930s

Acreage: 400 acres

Crops: Cherries, apricots, apples, peaches, plums

Website: www.willorch.com


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