Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Kimberly Orchards: Fruit on the John Day

Kimberly Orchards: Fruit on the John Day
By Rebecca Lundgren
Published in Prineville Territory magazine, spring 2009

Rows of fruit trees line both sides of the North Fork John Day River at the tiny Eastern Oregon town of Kimberly. The trees, lush in the summer with peaches, cherries, apples and other delicious fruit, stand in contrast to the striking rock formations, painted hills and fossil beds normally associated with the John Day River Valley.

Certainly, it may come as a surprise to motorists on Oregon Highway 19 to stumble upon the Kimberly Orchards, located just a short drive from Cathedral Rock and the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. The only commercial orchard of its kind in the region, Kimberly Orchards LLC takes advantage of the fertile river banks to grow 150 acres of fruit each year. At an elevation of 1,800 feet, Kimberly provides warm temperatures for producing tasty fruit, said John Thomas, an owner of the orchard.

“The fruit here tends to have good flavor,” said Thomas, who at age 67 still puts in 80 hours a week at the peak of the harvest season. Thomas is described by colleagues as a genuine breed of farmer, humble about his product and dedicated to the land.

Others who work with Kimberly Orchards are less reserved in their praise of the fruit.“Their product is unbelievable,” said Katrina Wiest, wellness specialist with the Bend-La Pine School District, which purchases Kimberly fruit for its school meals. “When the kids bite into an apple, you can see in their faces that they are elated to bite into such a fresh product.”

The Thomas family has worked quietly and independently for more than 60 years to keep the farm running. John Thomas and his wife Lynda are joined in operating the business by numerous family members including his brother Jim and wife Carolyn; son Jeffery and wife Laura; daughter and son-in-law Lorraine and Brian Vogt and nephew Chuck and wife Maria. His sister Alice, at age 77, runs a fruit market for the orchard in Great Falls, Montana.

There is no “Fruit Loop” or association of growers here to draw attention to the orchard or provide other assistance. But it’s that remoteness that helps set Kimberly apart from other orchards in the Northwest. With no worries about pests from neighboring orchards invading their fruit trees, the company offers the ultimate in quality control.“It’s an absolute isolated microclimate,” said Chris Brown, a Bend accountant and one of the owners of the orchard.

Due mostly to the dedication of the Thomas family, the orchard has survived at time when larger corporations and the global market have made it nearly impossible for a mid-sized family farm operations to thrive. Still, Kimberly Orchards faces significant challenges in trying to ensure its future.

Of the 62 years the Thomas family has operated the orchard, the past 15 have been the most economically challenging, John Thomas said. “Boy it’s been a struggle,” he said. “The time of the mid-sized family farm in the fruit business is limited.”

But with the formation of an LLC to support the orchard, an increased attention to marketing and a larger focus on the Central Oregon region, the company intends to keep the business a family operation for many years to come. The family plans to continue selling fruit through its popular U-pick operation at the orchard, at the fruit stand in Kimberly and at grocery stores around the region.

In addition, Brown plans to build a store off Knott Road in Bend to sell Kimberly fruit. He already set up a temporary fruit stand last summer and hired a knowledgeable manager. The results last summer exceeded their expectations. “We can bring in fruit that was just picked yesterday,” Brown said. “You can bite into a peach have the juice drip down your face.

Growing Fruit in Kimberly
The orchard’s beginning dates back to the early 1900s, when Orin Kimberly – the namesake for the town of Kimberly – planted commercial fruit trees along the river. Kimberly specialized in peaches, which he sold mostly through a U-Pick operation, John Thomas said.

“The peaches were so remarkably sweet and flavorful that people began to look for them each season and would wait for the ’Kimberly crop’ instead of buying peaches from other areas,” according to a history of the orchard on the company’s Web site. Storekeepers would advertise “Kimberly Peaches” and customers began to think of the Kimberly Peach as a new variety.

John Thomas’s parents, W. B. and Emily Thomas moved to the John Day Valley in the early 1930s. W.B. was a beekeeper looking for new territory for his bees, and he also worked as an electrician. But an experiment growing berries at his Mount Vernon place helped set the course that would land him in the orchard business. During World War II, consumers were encouraged to grow their own food so that the commercial food could be shipped to the troops.

W.B. Thomas made such a good business of selling strawberry plants that he managed to pay off his 160-acre farm in one year, John Thomas said. “He was always looking for new opportunities,” John Thomas said of his father.

With his experience growing fruit in the John Day Valley, W.B. Thomas noticed the potential for fruit trees, and for marketing fruit outside of the region, and started Thomas Orchards in Kimberly in 1947.

Thomas Orchards later bought Kimberly Orchards in 1967. W.B. Thomas expanded the varieties of fruit grown and shipped and marketed the fruit to Central Oregon and other areas.

“My father’s philosophy was ‘Work makes you live longer,’” John Thomas said.

A Family Operation
Over the years, the family has produced dozens of varieties of fruit: peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, cherries, apples and pears. When asked about the varieties of apples they grow in Kimberly, John Thomas rattles them off without taking a moment to pause: Red delicious, Golden delicious, Fuji, Braeburn, Granny smith, Pink lady, Criterion, Galas, Early Blaze, Gravenstein. Brown said the orchard offers 60 varieties of seven different kinds of fruit.

They run a simple operation with the family shouldering much of the work. From pruning trees to testing recipes for fruit products to shipping their own fruit to markets, the family has little time for vacations. Family members sell the fruit at farmer’s markets, fix their own equipment at the orchard and take care of bookkeeping. “This is a labor of love for the family,” said Wiest, who first met the Thomas family at the Farmer’s Market in Bend.

In the summer, they hire about 15 pickers, including school kids from the small neighboring communities of Monument and Spray.

John Thomas, who was born in Prairie City in 1941, earned a degree at Linfield College but has spent most his life on the orchard, living with his wife in the original farm house. Two small portable office buildings sit behind the house. One for the women and one for the men, Thomas joked on a recent tour of the property.
Next to the office is a large white building that serves as a cooler and a packing and processing facility, as a well as a kitchen for drying fruit and making other fruit products. A couple semi trucks sit next to facility for the Thomas family to make their own deliveries of fruit.

Over the years, the family enjoyed a healthy business shipping their fruit to grocery stores in the Central and Eastern Oregon, as well as to larger packing plants that shipped the fruit to points further away. The fruit stand at Kimberly has long served those who enjoy making the scenic drive, about 100 miles from Prineville and 60 miles from John Day, to stock up on locally grown fruit. The peak of the season is Labor Day weekend – when the most varieties of fruit are available.

With the spectacular scenery along the John Day River and plenty of hiking trails through the John Day Fossil Beds, a trip to Kimberly during peak fruit season makes a fantastic day trip. The fruit tastes better because it is allowed to ripen on the tree longer, John Thomas said. And selling to a local clientele leads to higher accountability.

“When you know where your fruit is coming from, if there is any question, you know where to check it out,” he added. “Somehow right now that local thing is pretty important.”

In keeping with the times, the family transitioned some of its land to producing organic fruit. About 30 percent of the fruit grown now is certified organic with Oregon Tilth. The process for fruit to gain certification as organic is time consuming, Thomas said. It takes three years to transition a crop to organic and gain certification. With the current economic crisis, people have seemed less willing to pay more for organic fruit, he added.

Surviving Hard Times
The orchard fell on hard times in the 1990s, when the market for U.S. apples tanked. With so many apples that could be grown for cheaper coming in from other parts of the world now being shipped here, it became harder for a local apple grower to compete. “The world market is a volatile thing,” Thomas said.

A fruit grower in Argentina can pay a worker $10 a day to pick fruit, Thomas explained, while he needs to pay the minimum wage of $8.40 an hour. With the cost of fuel, equipment and other supplies, he can barely make enough growing and shipping fruit to the large distributors to make it worth it.

The amount of apples the orchard was able to sell dropped by half – from 1,000 tons to 500 tons a year. Global market factors make it difficult for mid-size growers to survive, Thomas said. Also compounding the stress was the loss of several loyal customers when independent grocery stores were purchased by larger corporations. The orchards counted the Wagner’s supermarket chain in Central Oregon to be one of its best customers, but the orchard lost its business shortly after the chain was purchased by Albertson’s in the mid-1990s.

Thomas said he enjoyed working relationships with knowledgeable produce managers at stores such as Wagner’s but many larger stores have replaced those managers with lesser-paid and less educated workers. “For me, it was so easy to deal with the guys who knew what they were doing,” Thomas said.

The orchard still enjoys working with other independent grocery store chains in Central Oregon including Erickson’s Thiftway stores, Ray’s Food Place and Food 4 Less. And the Thriftway in John Day is probably the orchard’s most loyal customer.
With the population growth in Central Oregon during the last couple decades, the orchard also suffered a loss of brand identification, Brown said. People moving here from California or Portland had no idea where Kimberly was and would not realize that the Kimberly fruit advertised at the store was indeed local fruit.

“Most people think Kimberly is a variety of fruit like an Elberta peach,” Brown said.

Holding onto the Future
Four years ago, faced with the increasing challenges of the farm economy, the family put part of the orchard up for sale. Thomas said they were thinking of running a smaller, more local fruit business.

Then Chris Brown, the Bend accountant, entered the picture. Brown has no background in the fruit business but as a child growing up in Redmond, he enjoyed trips to Kimberly. He was determined to keep the orchard intact with the family on board, he said. “I can’t grow fruit to save my soul but John sure can,” Brown said. “That orchard would not function without the family.”

The Thomas Family entered a partnership with Brown to form a limited liability company, Kimberly Orchards LLC. The family traded the assets in its previous corporation, Thomas Orchards, for membership in the new LLC. Six members of the Thomas family are owners in LLC along with Brown, who brought with him some investors to help infuse new life in the orchard. The family has sold a portion of the land.

With the stresses in the global market, the company is looking to focus more on its customers in the Central Oregon region with the addition of the new store off Knott Road, Brown said. The store will provide an outlet for people to get large quantities of fruit for canning and other needs. And with a produce manager on board, it will help educate people about Kimberly fruit and direct them to the grocery stores in the region where they can purchase the fruit, he added.

The orchard is shifting more attention to the kinds of fruit that are harder to be shipped from places around the world such as peaches, apricots and plums.
The partnership with the Bend-La Pine School District is also a bright new direction for the orchard. Through its Farm to School program, the school district has placed a greater emphasis on providing students with farm fresh fruits and vegetables. Kimberly Orchards can provide fruit to the school district at the same cost - and sometimes less - than the district’s wholesaler, Wiest said. What’s more, the orchard can bring smaller apples better suited for students’ hands. The orchard ships about 75 to 100 boxes to the school district about once a week.

“He’s been able to meet our demands,” Wiest said of John Thomas. “He brings them himself in his truck and he hand delivers them.” Best of all, students gain a better understanding of the food they eat. The orchard also has begun to supply fruit to schools in Crook County and Redmond.

A Family’s Commitment
While others have tried to make a go of a commercial fruit business in John Day River Valley, the Thomas Family is the only one with staying power. The buildings and vehicles on the orchard are modest. With prime real estate along the North Fork, the family could have sold out to a wealthy hobby rancher. “For these folks to be stalwart and hold to their guns to do this, it takes some sacrifice.” Brown said.

People are quick to credit John Thomas for his management of the orchard – and for his unassuming, hard-working character. He doesn’t know how important he is,” Wiest said.

For his part, Thomas simply says he enjoys his job because it gives him lots of time outdoors and he likes eating plenty of fresh fruit. He often climbs the hill next to the orchard for exercise. He’s so in touch with the land that he rattles off details and historical facts of the John Day River valley off the top of his head.

He’s not sure when he will be able to retire and hopes the orchard will be sustainable for the next generation of Thomases. And while he’s reluctant to take much credit for the orchard’s successes, he is proud of keeping the business in the family for more than 60 years.

“Maybe a little of it is luck,” Thomas said. “Maybe a little of it is hard work.”

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