On the Orchard: an update
Updated: May 24, 2021
I skipped over a broad update on orchard happenings for the little snapshot of the bees. There is so much to be told about the happenings between my last update in March and now, almost the end of May!
(TL;DR version: finished pruning, fixed all.the.broken.things, started some spraying, listed a cabin for rent, got bees, and set the irrigation to drip)
For those who like the details, keep reading.
We finished pruning on March 21. Unofficially, the pruning took us 78 "man days"- meaning a single person would have needed that amount of time to complete the orchard. We pulled it off in 32 calendar days; we worked approximately 28 days due to a few weather days and, frankly, a bit of exhaustion. Most days of pruning lasted around 14 hours, so we could say that the work amounts to 1,092 hours. That is a lot of time pulling a pruning trigger! Shane managed to record over 18,000 cuts in a single day which shadowed the rest of us by a couple thousand, no matter how fast we thought we were moving. We were grateful for having our neighbor, Shannon, help in the orchard for about 8 of the days. I was able to jump in on the weekends. We owe an immeasurable amount of gratitude for the entire month that Shane's friend, Billy, stayed with us to get this done. Shane and Billy worked every one of the 28 days and much of that time as just a pruning duo. It was fun hearing their almost brotherly banter throughout the pruning season. It definitely took the drudgery out of the work a bit to listen to all of Billy's crazy stories. If you come to the house and the girls give you a tour, you are likely to hear the far bedroom described as "Billy's room." We also renamed the "Willie" Block to the "Billy" Block in his honor. He earned it!
Those who read about the start of this adventure know that neither Shane nor I have any prior experience in orchards. I find it is giving us a good amount of humility to appreciate and absorb all of those so gracious with their time and knowledge to support and help through each step of this process. We could not, however, do this without some general ability to learn quickly and apply transferable skills wherever possible. While my writing seems to be an asset for those who like to follow along here, it's not going to grow the cherries. Shane, on the other hand, seems to find a daily reason to prove he is the true brawn in this operation and remind me just how lost we would be without him. Every step of this process, Shane has taken in stride and soaked in the learning required to run the orchard. Further, his almost inhuman mechanic abilities have saved us constantly.
As I noted in earlier posts about the purchase process, the prior owner of the orchard was over the moon to see a family purchase this property. It sustained his dreams for the tireless work and money he had dotingly poured into these cherry trees. With that, we were able to acquire just about everything we would need to keep the orchard growing strong. Much like all agricultural endeavors, there is a large amount of mechanical implements required to keep things in order. So far, we are fairly certain that every single mechanical item on the orchard has not worked when needed. Which is also not uncommon in agriculture, but it will never be convenient or without frustration.
This is where we celebrate Shane. It is awe-inspiring to watch just how quickly and thoroughly he is able to troubleshoot, fix, iterate, and move past just about any mechanical hang up around here. We have had small things like issues with the blades on the pruners to larger concerns like sheared irrigation pump bolts and cracked sprayer housings. He is able to identify and fix each issue with precision and a surprising amount of humility (he will probably hate this entire blog since it spotlights his skills). Even our chemical rep took note of this trait when there was a small issue with the spreader and his response was "well, if you can't figure it out, I won't be able to either." I am acutely aware of why so many pilots and mechanics used to joke that he was a "helicopter whisperer" and specifically wanted him to be on their job or had him on speed dial.
There are some incredible, story-book perfect pictures of the orchard in springtime- especially with the blossoms on full display. Those images paint a splendid scene, for sure, but I would be remiss to leave out that the last four months have been some hard and exhausting months as well. Often, the accounts of "small farm" and "sustainable living" glamorize the beauty without honoring the unforgiving hands of time- there is never enough to get it all done and it regularly requires a whole lot of work and persistence.
Spraying and Irrigation
During the time we were able to spend with the previous owner, there was one topic that always ended with "I never did fully figure that out:" chemicals. There has to be a lot of trust of those who know the world of chemicals, both nutritional and pest and disease control. While I was hesitant at first due to the reputation of being salesmen, our chemical representative is enthusiastic and supportive of what we are trying to accomplish. He seems more than fair and honest and we have appreciated his help this spring. Good people are good people.
Early in the year, we had our soil tested and were relieved to learn (as I noted in a previous post) that we were good to forego the fertigation process for the time being. Little did we know at the time just how many little fixes the irrigation would require. So, beyond the sigh of relief to not have to figure that all out, we also bypassed a rush of irrigation work that would have been required to fertigate. Instead, the only recommendation for spring was a granular nutrient.
We got through a few tractor maintenance crises during the spreader process. Then, with a week to spare prior to the first spray application, Shane discovered the cracks in the sprayer housing and lines. It wasn't an easy or straightforward process to acquire the parts, but we did, and Shane was able to get the sprayer online not long after the original plan for first application. Currently, we spray primarily for growth and nutrition- nothing in the sprayer is anything the average person couldn't grab at the store. It is just in a larger quantity.
Between spray applications, we tackled the irrigation lines. Most lines were short of the last tree by 10 feet, so we spent a lot of time coupling lines and extending these to the end of the rows. We have repaired a number of risers as well- turns out irrigation tubing makes great coyote chew toys. This is the project I have been working on the most, and it is also the project Shane accuses me of wandering away from to watch the bees. Might be true. The irrigation pump was not working correctly and we were quietly starting to fret about the possibility that it wasn't actually able to irrigate the whole orchard. Shane tore into it and discovered a mouse had filled the pump with cherry pits. This is probably the best possible problem to find as it was easily remedied with some time and a pick. As of this blog post, the irrigation pump seems to be pushing water through the lines just fine.
Cherry Camp- Skeena Cabin
We get asked often what we plan to do with the orchard. This question used to cause me to pause a bit because what would we do besides grow cherries on a cherry orchard. So to answer the question for those still wondering, we hope to grow and sell large quantities of cherries. I love the opportunities beyond cherries on this property as well. And these opportunities are probably more likely the things many people would like to hear about in that answer. I've switched to saying that Shane is going to grow cherries and I am going to build up a variety of contingency plans. Cherries are a fairly high risk commodity.
One such piece of the contingency is reimagining one of the cabins in the picker camp. The cabins sit empty for all but a few weeks a year. The camp sits in the most stunning setting- Mill Creek flows alongside and it is tucked in amongst the trees- that it seemed an ideal plan to offer somewhere to stay to enjoy Eastern Oregon. I purchased 5 gallons of white paint and after hours of cleaning I white washed one of the smaller cabin interiors. The goal was to keep the picker cabin elements in tact- the bunks and shelves- so in the event it needs to be used it is available. I tried to repurpose as much as I could from items that never found a place in our new orchard house. I was also able to snag an incredibly comfortable bed from a dear family friend who was moving. We dewinterized the shower house and the camp has access to warm showers. The bathroom is an ever-glamorous outhouse. It all came together wonderfully and is now available to rent via Air BnB or HipCamp.
I share the daily orchard happenings regularly on Facebook and Instagram. I will work to be better about also updating what is happening here as well. Blog readers will definitely get the more robust look inside our journey of owning and operating this cherry orchard! There is more to share, even as I end this post, but I will save that for another day. Thank you all for following along and all of your support.