Specialty nurseries send harvesters into narrow time window
By DAN WHEAT
Apple harvest in Central Washington is done. In its wake, a little-known harvest quickly comes and goes.
It's the annual digging of millions of young fruit trees in a three-week November window after they go dormant and before their roots freeze in the ground.
Morning frost is not long gone as a small army of 143 workers enters a field near Quincy, about 30 miles southeast of Wenatchee, for another day.
Some of them strip leaves from the small trees, preparing them for the dig. Others follow a tall machine that uproots the trees. The driver sits high above the ground. Below him you can walk upright through the center of the machine when it isn't straddling a row of trees.
A U-shaped blade slices through the ground under the roots, lifting the trees and letting them plop down. Workers grab them, knock the dirt away, bundle them and load them on tractor-drawn wagons that take them to trucks. The trees go to warehouses where they are kept cool and moist through winter and ready for spring shipment to orchards in the Pacific Northwest, around the country and to Canada, Mexico and a few other nations.
C&O Nursery Co., of Wenatchee, is the granddaddy of tree fruit nurseries in north-central Washington. The company celebrated its 100th birthday three years ago.
C&O and three other commercial tree fruit nurseries in the region dig about 4 million trees annually, which is the bulk of nursery-produced trees in Washington and about 40 percent of the nation, said Todd Snyder, co-owner of C&O.
Those figures, he said, do not include the growing number of trees produced each year by large tree fruit companies, like Stemilt Growers Inc. of Wenatchee, for their own orchards.
That practice concerns the commercial nurseries.
"I would say we are looking at our business models to make sure we maintain our place in the market," Snyder said. "One of the key components that's still inside the nursery industry is the intellectual proprietary rights of certain varieties. That prevents large companies from growing everything they want."
C&O is digging 905,600 trees this November, up just 5,600 from last year. Two years ago, it had a bumper year of 1.1 million. The amount is decided on orders placed a year to two years earlier.
A two-year growing cycle begins with the company buying cloned rootstock trees and planting them in the spring. That August and September the rootstock is budded with buds from various varieties. Buds are inserted into cuts in the stems of the rootstock. It all grows until the following spring, when rootstock growth is removed, allowing bud growth to dominate. It grows through the summer and into the fall, when it is trimmed to 5 feet in preparation for the dig.
Snyder said orders now, for two years out, are down 10 to 15 percent in cherries because of the huge cherry crop this past season that drove prices down. The trend now, he said, is toward more dwarf apples.