Eighty-some years ago, the Spokane Valley led Washington state in apple production. Picking from more than 600,000 trees on 7,200 acres, Valley orchardists shipped 2.25 million boxes of the crispy crunchers all over the world.
This season, three Valley growers are harvesting apples from 600 trees on nine acres. While orchardists Tom Thacker, Dan Finney and Dave Sanders know apples no longer make much money for them, they love what they do.
Thacker and Finney pick apples for their customers. Sanders, who has only a handful of trees on one acre, lets people pick on their own if they want.
At the corner of Flora and Valleyway are Thacker’s three acres of Romes, galas, crispins and Jonathans. He grows those, as well as five other varieties, on the same land on which his father, Ray, raised apples for many years. He plans to one day plant trees on another four acres that once belonged to his father.
“I think about him most every day. I think about him and his dumb hobby that is now my work,” he said with a chuckle.
Ray Thacker, longtime Central Valley High School basketball coach, died in 1993. But Tom and his mother, Irene, maintain the orchard and sell the fruit at their roadside stand, next to their home. “Mom’s about the best picker around,” said the 46-year-old man. “She just so fast.”
The two picked galas recently. Thacker said his mom finished a tree, thick with apples, in no time. The same size tree took him hours to complete.
Not that he minds that time out in the sun. In fact, being outside is his favorite part of being an orchardist.
Thacker said he’s never let anyone pick from his trees for two reasons. The grass and other growth around the chunky-rooted trees is so thick that someone could easily twist their ankle and get hurt, he said. And, Thacker said, he doesn’t have to worry about folks taking too many tree branches with them. “People don’t always know how to pick,” he said.
Dan Finney has his picking skills down pat.
“For these Macs, you hold it by the side, twist up and pull gently,” said the 38-year-old and perhaps the youngest orchardist around. “For others, it’s different. If just depends on the variety.”
This year marks Finney’s first year as the owner of Apples o’ Plenty on Garry Road, just north of Euclid. The Liberty Lake native took over the 500-tree orchard from Jim Lloyd who owned Lloyd’s Orchards in Otis Orchards for 39 years.
“It baffles me why he’d want to do it,” said Lloyd. “Most people wouldn’t want the grief that comes along with it. I was gonna give it up, but he said he wanted to do it.”
When he was in his early teens, Finney picked and sold apples for Lloyd. Lloyd used to tell Finney that Finney was the best apple salesman around, sowing seeds for the future. When Finney was 17, he joined the U.S. Navy and spent much of his 19-year tour underwater in a submarine.
“That gives you an incentive to want forestry jobs or to get into gardening and orchards,” said Finney. When he finally washed up on shore and left the Navy, Finney headed straight to Lloyd for work.
“Out in the orchard is a beautiful part of God’s creation,” said Finney. “Even when it’s raining or I’m walking through it through a blizzard, there’s still beauty out there in the orchard.”
When the sun shines through the trees, the apples glisten, still wet with morning dew. There’s a lingering mist among the branches and a stillness that Finney and Lloyd said they love.
“The environment out there is very peaceful,” Lloyd said. “I’m kinda glad to get away from the work, but I still get to watch the fruit grow and ripen and change in color. And I eat all I want, too.”
For now, Finney’s hoping next year’s harvest is more fruitful than this one. A late and wet spring produced a smaller-than-usual crop, in number and in the fruit size. Apples were half their normal size, all the growers said. And many were plagued with a fungus called apple scab.
“Next year’s gonna be the big year,” he said, looking up at one of his Winter Banana apple trees. “I’ve been pruning and I’ve been talking to them, even threatening them to get better.”
Just about ready to throw in the apple towel is Dave Sanders. Over the years, he’s grown more than 65 varieties in 100 trees. Now, he’s down to one acre, seven or so varieties and a dozen trees.
“The crowning blow came last year when, after pruning my trees, it took 27 man hours to remove all the clippings and get them to the incinerator,” said the Otis Orchards resident. “It just doesn’t make sense anymore to do it.”
Most of his remaining trees are 20 years old. In addition to the apples, Sanders grows chestnut, walnut, pear and filbert trees.
“Times have changed,” he said. “People would, in the past, travel far distances into the country on weekends to pick fruit. Now they don’t. They’re too busy with kids, meetings.” And when they actually come out to the orchards, they don’t pick too much because they don’t have the time to do anything with the apples, said Sanders, who was raised on an orchard in Sebastopol, Calif., just north of San Francisco.
In the beginning, Sanders intended to use profits to pay his property taxes. But the $500 to $1,000 he’s made in the past couple of years doesn’t even pay for all the pesticides and equipment that’s necessary to prune, water and care for the trees.
“I gave up making money on it,” he said. But he’ll never give up his trees altogether. He loves being able to grab one off the tree, polish it on his pant leg and take a deep, juicy bite.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos
Click here to comment on this story »