Al Parsley grew up with orchards. His parents worked for large orchards in the Chelan, Wash., area for 35 years, then purchased orchards of their own in 1968.
In 1979 when Al was 26 years old, he and his wife, Suzanne, purchased an orchard near Manson, a small community in Chelan County near Wenatchee.
The 20-acre orchard was growing Red and Golden Delicious apples.
“We purchased it with nothing down and harvested a crop 30 days after signing the contract. We were able to work with a banker and get into the orchard business — which was unusual for as young as we were,” he says.
“We had a great banker. He was our banker for 36 years; when he changed banks we changed with him. When we went to his retirement party a few years ago we learned that we were his first major orchard. We started our careers together.”
In 1994, Al and Suzanne took out some of the Red Delicious and put in 5 acres of Fuji.
“This was a big gamble. We were some of the earlier orchards to plant Fuji apples but got good prices for them for a few years, which helped pull us through the bad years, he says.
“We took out some more Reds in 1996 and planted Gala. At that time we had 5 acres of Fuji, 5 acres of Gala and about 10 acres of Reds and Goldens. In the mid-1980s we purchased an adjoining orchard,” Al says.
“Over the years we’ve also leased orchards in this area. At one time we had 80 acres, and I also helped my dad with his orchard (about 30 acres) until he retired. We shared work and equipment for many years and helped each other, so we were both able to survive,” he says.
“My wife, Suzanne, worked for the fruit industry for 40 years, as a fruit accountant, for various warehouses in the valley, and she’s the bookkeeper for our orchard. It’s always been a team effort. She keeps all the food safety paperwork current,” Al says.
Five years ago he planted SugarBee, a new club apple for Chelan Fruit. They had 30,000 young trees available to distribute to growers, using a lottery to determine who got them.
“Any grower for Chelan Fruit could put their name in, and get up to 5,000 trees that first year. We were lucky to be one of the orchards that got 5,000 trees, so we were one of the first to plant SugarBees in the Manson-Chelan area.”
He now has 5,000 SugarBee trees that will be 5 years old this season, and 5,000 4-year-old trees.
“On our first crop we picked 160 bins off the 2- and 3-year-old trees, and last year we picked 250 bins from the 3- and 4-year-old trees,” he says.
These trees are planted in a 2.5-by-10-foot space, so you can plant about 1,400 trees per acre.
“They are on an 11-foot trellis, so we are growing them 11 feet tall. Our young trees have reached about two-thirds of that height right now. Some of them can get up to 11 feet in just 3 to 4 years.”
They hit peak production quickly.
“We’ve now grafted all our Fuji and Gala trees to SugarBees. We are going 100 percent into these new apples.”
During the past 15 years he also worked for Chelan Fresh Marketing.
“In that job I was able to test a lot of fruit, working with folks in the quality assurance department. When the SugarBee first came out I tasted and compared them to other fruit and they are one of the best apples I’ve ever eaten,” Al says.
“This new variety is 50 percent Honeycrisp but the other half is unknown. Even with DNA testing they can’t come up with the variety it was crossed with, but this new apple has a sweet taste of its own and stores very well,” he says.