Henggeler family orchards are in their fourth generation. This fruit enterprise began in 1907 when Charles Henggeler purchased a farm near Fruitland, Idaho, and planted fruit trees.
In 1943, his sons Tony and Joe started Henggeler Packing Co. In turn, their sons Rudy, Tony, Jerry and Robert later became involved, and later Jerry’s youngest son, Chad, began managing the orchards.
They store, pack and market fruit for other farms as well as their own.
Chad says the Idaho fruit industry has changed a lot in the past century, and is now declining after reaching a peak in 1915.
“We were involved with one of the early water projects, which made it possible to grow fruit in a dry climate,” he said. Early orchards were mainly apples, prunes and a few cherries. During the 1940s Idaho grew more fruit than Washington state.
“Today, however, many of the new apple varieties — including the Cosmic Crisp — are exclusively Washington apples. There are other proprietary varieties we can’t grow; some of the larger firms own the proprietary rights to those apples,” Chad said.
A survey of trees planted last year showed 80% of those varieties cannot be planted in Idaho.
“We can plant Fuji and Honeycrisp, but not proprietary varieties,” he said.
The Fruitland area is also hotter in the summer than Wenatchee, Wash., or the upper Columbia River Basin.
“We do really well with Fuji apples, but some of the other varieties like Gala don’t do as well; we tend to be a little too hot in late August. Some of the newer varieties don’t take the heat as well as the older varieties,” Chad said.
“On the positive side, our valley is growing in population and the local food movement is growing. We have a larger local market than in past decades. People want to support the local industries. Looking forward, we may produce more types of fruit, because the heat units we now have are good for soft fruits like peaches, plums and apricots,” he explained.
In 2001, they planted peaches and are now growing and packing several varieties, along with plums and prunes.
“We grow high quality peaches because we have the heat units to finish them in the fall, with high sugar content. We’re scaling back some of our apple plantings and expanding our plums and peaches,” Chad said.
“We have a good watershed, so we don’t have the water problem California has,” he said.
However, he said, “Labor is probably our number one concern.”
The challenge is finding enough labor for fruit crops that require hand labor such as pruning in winter, thinning in spring and summer, and harvest in fall.
“Many farms and orchards are using the H-2A program, bringing workers from Mexico to help with harvesting. This works, but is also expensive,” Chad said.
“We had almost a 15 percent increase in the cost of our H-2A labor last year, so this is a big issue,” he said. “If these increases continue, we’ll get priced out of the market.”
In their orchards they continue to transition into new varieties and new technology that adds efficiency.
“We’re also doing more with local fruit markets. I own half of Lakeview Fruit in Caldwell, with another farmer. This was the old Saxton fruit market, built in 1972, and when that family retired from the fruit industry we bought it,” Chad said.
He also services other fruit markets around the area, and that business is expanding.
“This coming year I plan to establish an organic peach and apricot orchard,” he said. “The organic fruit will probably be marketed through local outlets, but we also ship peaches and plums to California, New York, the Midwest and South.”
This may be an exciting new chapter, he said.
“We try to grow what people want, and organic is a growing market. We’ve been going that way quite a bit already with our soft spray programs and more use of cover crops between orchards to build the soil without using fertilizers. We’ve been moving that direction with all our fruit but just haven’t gotten certification for the organic market,” he said.