Vegetables, greenhouses provide alternate revenue streams for family


For the Capital Press

CLARKSTON, Wash. -- The Wilson Banner Ranch has reinvented itself many times in the 120 years it's been in the Wilson family. Joe Wilson bluntly said, "If you don't change, you'll go out of business."

He would know.

He's spent most of his life introducing change to the ranch.

Grandfather Weldon Wilson started the ranch with purchase of 160 acres from a squatter in the late 1880s and expanded it to 800 acres. His son, Eugene Lee Wilson, took over the farm in 1952 and deeded it to his sons, Joe and Lafe, in 1966.

Weldon raised chickens, hogs, and "everything that will grow here that would make a dime," Joe said.

Joe recently bought out Lafe and is making plans to transition the operation to his children. Operations now are confined to 50 acres, which is irrigated out of spring-fed Alpowa Creek, which runs year around. The rest of the ranch consists mostly of very steep hillsides in a rain shadow that receives very little precipitation. The hills have been grazed in the past, but the economics aren't there today.

"Two and a half acres produce only one animal unit month," Joe said. Leasing out the land wouldn't bring in enough money to make it worth while to put up with the management problems involved to ensure that lessees didn't over graze, he said.

Weldon Wilson established an orchard and truck garden operation on the bottom land and sold fruit and vegetables as far away as Pullman, Wash. He traveled by horse and wagon, taking a ferry across the Snake River at Silcott, then going up Steptoe Canyon to Colton, Wash., then to Pullman. He would spend the night in Pullman and return to the ranch the next day.

In 1909, Weldon traveled to Seattle with half a box car load of fruit and vegetables, which he displayed at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

But he went out of the orchard business soon after Washington State over-allocated water rights in the early 1920s and soon Alpowa Creek didn't produce enough water for all of the demand.

Weldon introduced the first big change in the ranch's operation by building greenhouses in which he grew tomatoes and other vegetables, which he sold throughout the area.

Tree fruit didn't return to the ranch until Joe and Lafe took over as Lower Granite Dam was under construction. The reservoir behind the dam would eventually flood all of the sandy benches for 39 miles between the dam and Lewiston, Idaho. They were prime tree fruit locations. As orchards upstream on the Snake River from its confluence with Alpowa Creek were razed, the over allocation water problem was solved and the Wilsons were again able to claim their full right.

"The minute I knew they weren't going to take any more water, we began planting trees," Joe reminisces, and tree fruit was restored to the ranch.

It's been constant change at the Wilson Banner Ranch over the ensuring 40 years.

Today, a 25-acre, 3,000-tree orchard is the heart of the ranch. It is the last commercial orchard in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, once a major fruit producer. An additional 25 acres of bottomland is devoted to a truck farm that produces a variety and vegetables and even turf grass.

The Wilsons grow 40 varieties of eight different types of fruit. Both fruit and truck garden operations are designed to optimize planting, harvest and marketing.

Like his granddad, Joe will grow anything that will grow on the farm if it will produce a dollar of profit without hurting the environment.

Joe also does everything he can to cut expenses and increase income. He even harvests and sells Himalayan blackberries that grow wild on the farm.

When Joe and Lafe took over the farm, it had no buildings and irrigation was by ditch and hand-moved aluminum pipe. Today water is delivered through 3,500 feet of 15-inch pipe with 15 pounds of pressure into two pumps that throw 1,250 gallons per minute through a variable pressure system designed to provide even distribution of 50 psi to sprinkler heads from the top of hillside plantings to trees at the bottom.

The system can save crops at temperatures as low as 23 degrees by overhead spraying.

Joe, who has an agronomy degree from Washington State University, engineered the system and proudly explains that 1,250 gallons per minute provides enough water to irrigate all of the orchard at the same time. This is essential for frost control. All but the cherry block is in overhead irrigation.

The ranch has two cold storage rooms, a 40-by-60-foot room in which bins can be stacked six high and a 32-by-40-foot room that accommodates bins four high. Wilson can keep apples at 31degrees and pears at 29 degrees. Joe also designed the storages himself, after studying large, commercial cold storage operations in Yakima.

Wilson's marketing strategy is to sell all he can on the farm. He offers both U-pick fruit and vegetables and already picked produce. He estimates 80 percent of the peaches and nectarines and 50 percent of the apples, pears and cherries are sold at the farm.

Wilson also markets fruit throughout the region. What he can't sell to customers at the farm, he sells to grocery stores and at farmers' markets in Washington's Asotin and Whitman counties, and in Idaho's Latah and Nez Perce counties. He estimates 100,000 people live in their market area.

Fruit varieties are chosen to produce the longest possible harvest season, as well as to even out harvest to available labor, and to provide the broad variety of fruit that customers want.

This includes both old and new cultivars.

For instance, five different cherry varieties spread the harvest and market season for cherries over a six-week period. The strategy is the same with other fruit, and Joe said one of the objects also is to entice customers to return several times a year for different produce.

Sweet corn is a major factor in the Wilson operation. "We sell a lot of corn," Joe said. They usually devote 15 acres to the corn. In the fall their pumpkin patch is popular, along with a straw bale maze for children. Their truck garden also produces tomatoes, squash, mellons and other vegetables.

Wilson also grows four acres of sod, sold mostly on the farm. He buys a mix of 12 varieties of bluegrass seed from Dye Seed out of nearby Pomeroy, Wash.

Ever on the lookout for a way to turn a dollar, Wilson also contracts with Potlatch Corp., to provide cold storage for millions of evergreen seedlings -- Western Larch, Ponderosa Pine, Yellow Pine, White Fir and Douglas Fir. Boxed seedlings arrive from as far away as Canada. Joe said they need about six weeks' storage each year to avoid developing fungi before planting.

"It's good revenue for a month and a half," Joe said. Another change in the ranch's operation has been a drive to reduce pesticide use. "We're doing less and less spaying," Joe reports. Five years ago he began switching over to pheromones in the ongoing battle with coddling moths in apples.

This has allowed him to cut back from four or five sprays per season to only one. What's next for the Wilsons? Whatever it is, you can bet it will be a change that helps them keep turning a profit.

"We're still changing," Joe said. "If you don't change, you'll go out of business," he repeats.

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