The staccato song of sprinklers accompanies the Columbia River traveler near this one-road community.
It is the song of the river turning hills from faded brown velvet to bright green corduroy. It is the song of apples ripening in the sun.
Bite into a Granny Smith or a Red Delicious and you’re biting into the Columbia River, which waters over half the nation’s apples - more than 100 million boxes in 1994.
Each red or green fruit is 97 percent water. Each requires more than a gallon of the river’s lifeblood before it is picked and sent to supermarkets in England, Taiwan or Spokane.
Shut off the water, and Orondo’s perfect soil and perfect climate would go to waste.
Shut off the water, and pioneer orchardist Grady Auvil might as well retire from the only life he’s known since 1908, when his family moved from West Virginia coal country.
Shut off the water, and Portfirio Covarrubias, one of Orondo’s newest orchardists, would go back to his knees, picking strawberries in the California mud.
“Those were the good old days,” said Covarrubias, 44, showing a smile that has drawn permanent lines under his dark eyes. “I am glad they are over.”
The neighbors, one half the age of the other, are as different as two men could be. Yet, they are linked by a passion for watching trees and businesses grow.
Auvil, 89, is president of a family company that owns 850 acres of trees and a packing warehouse nearly as big as the old Spokane Coliseum. Auvil Fruit Co. ships 500,000 boxes of apples around the world each year and hires 450 workers during harvest.
Auvil is a farmer who thinks like an economist or sociologist.
He was the first to grow Granny Smiths in Washington, predicting correctly in the 1970s that people would grow to like its tart flavor.
Auvil planted Galas next to the Granny Smiths after an acquaintance from an East Coast fruit stand mentioned people buying a bag of the apples one day and returning for boxes of them the next.
“That’s got to get your attention.”
More recently, he was among the first in the state to grow Fujis.
Auvil is so taken with the new varieties, he predicts consumers soon will favor them over Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples. Those famous varieties make up 90 percent of Washington’s crop, but are not grown on Auvil’s place.
“We’ve succeeded quite well because we’ve always stayed ahead of the game,” said Auvil, whose empire started with 25 acres.
For Covarrubias, who becomes a U.S. citizen next month, growing apples is more labor than management. He owns 30 acres and hires 12 workers during the peak season.
“We don’t have a lot of knowledge like a lot of people,” he said, climbing down from a three-legged ladder. “They go to school or it’s been in their family for generations.
“We just work.”
Covarrubias moved from Mexico when he was 15 and followed the crops. He picked strawberries, lemons, plums and peaches before settling in Wenatchee with his wife and two sons. He worked the orchards, hoping to one day have his own.
“It was a dream that we knew we could never afford,” said Covarrubias’ wife, Linda.
In 1989, the couple borrowed $300,000 under a federal program that helps minorities buy farms. They bought 30 acres of aging apple trees they once picked as seasonal workers.
For a while, their telephone rang with angry calls from people who resented the government helping foreigners. They either didn’t know or didn’t care that red-headed Linda was born in Missouri.
When the Covarrubias complained their property taxes doubled, a county official sneered.
“I know how you people got your place,” he said.
Even the trees seemed to revolt the first year.
Covarrubias watched slack-jawed as apples dropped to the ground faster than crews could pick them. He didn’t know most orchardists spray their trees with a stem-hardening chemical to increase harvest time.
“We saw the ground covered with apples. Big red apples,” he said.
The angry telephone calls have ended, the orchard is turning a profit and the Covarrubias have paid off $100,000 of the loan. The government this year doubled the interest on the remaining debt, saying the couple could stand the increase.
The Covarrubiases are confident they’ll succeed, as long as the apple market remains strong, the weather cooperates and the Columbia keeps flowing at the edge of their land.
“It was meant for us to have this place,” said Covarrubias.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BACK ISSUES Back issues of The SpokesmanReview’s Columbia Chronicles can be bought at the newspaper’s Spokane office, 999 W. Riverside, or ordered through the mail. Cost is 50 cents daily and $1.50 Sunday for copies bought at the front counter. Copies by mail are $2.25 each for the daily paper and $3.90 each for Sunday. Send your mail order to The Spokesman-Review, Mail Circulation Dept., P.O. Box 1906, Spokane, Wash. 99210-1906. Columbia Chronicles so far: June 4 - An overview of the Columbia River and its impact. June 7 - Now 90 feet under water, Kettle Falls once thundered. June 10 - White irises mark Sid Buckley’s old front yard, before Grand Coulee Dam forced him and thousands of others to move. June 12 - From Fort Spokane to Kettle Falls, a toothy, Midwestern fish is all the rage. June 14 - Park ranger Terri Ray keeps order at Fort Spokane. June 16 - Ferries ply waters. June 20 - Grand Coulee attracts visitors from everywhere. June 22 - The river claims many lives.
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