By Brock Hires
Richard and Jill Werner know a thing or two about the agriculture industry in Washington state. In fact, the ground they harvest from has been in the family five generations.
With 40 acres of pears, 70 acres of cherries and 100 acres of apples, the work never seems to slow down at the Werner farm.
One thing that sets the Werner’s orchards apart from other commercial operations is their farming methods. They prefer farming freestanding trees at relatively low density. They do this because of erratic soils and slopes of the landscapes in the Okanogan Valley.
“It’s not for the faint of heart. There’s a lot of heartache and stress,” Richard said. “I’m not a simple farmer, but I do farm simply so that I can work effectively and live simply.”
And that simplicity is paying off.
“We’re picking about 930,000 pounds of cherries this year; and we’ve got a lot of young trees,” Richard said. “I think we’ll pick over a million next year.”
And while that may sound like a lot, it all depends on the market each year.
“Cherries are the ones that go up and down,” Jill said. “You can have really good years and really bad years.”
Richard noted that cherries are volatile when it comes to varieties, weather and other elements.
“There are growers that have cherries, and then there’s cherry growers,” Richard said. “I kind of hope that I’m amongst the ones that we call cherry growers.”
Lapins, Sweethearts, Bentons, Bings, Sandra Rose, Black Pearl and Sambas are among the varieties the couple grows.
“If you have one acre of cherries, you need ten people to harvest that in a timely manner,” Richard said. So, part of planting is arranging varieties and locations in a way that makes harvest orderly and efficient.
“Because of our geo-location, with the influence of the lake (Lake Osoyoos), we really have two microclimates growing,” he said.
Along with geographical locations of the orchards, weather can play a key role in harvest, too.
“We’re still trying to pick Galas. Usually they’re done by Labor Day,” Richard said. “They’re still holding fine. That has more to do with that late freeze and late-developing spring.”
“Cherries and pears were all late, too,” Jill added.
When asked how Richard got his start in the agriculture industry he recollected his childhood.
Growing up on the Airforce base in Airway Heights, Richard recalls a nearby farm that caught his eye.
“I just fell in love with the idea of animals,” he said. “All the way through high school and college, we had a few head of cattle. Agriculture became part of who I was.”
His original goal was to become a veterinarian, but eventually turned towards vocational agriculture. He became an educator at Oroville School District.
When it came to owning his own farm, he said an instructor once told him: “You’ve either got to marry it, inherit it, or steal it.”
“My father was in the Airforce, so I wasn’t going to inherit it. I’m pretty ethical, so I wasn’t going to steal it,” he said. But he did marry into it. “It was Jill’s senior year at WSU (and she was) home on summer break; we met in the high school library.”
Jill went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from WSU.
“I had lived in the dorm with his sister,” Jill said.
When the couple met, Jill’s father was operating an orchard, that had been in the family since the 1930s.
“We bought our own place independent of what my dad was doing, as Richard was teaching and we were running our own small farm,” Jill said.
“I was able to prove myself,” Richard said.
“He (Richard) finally quit teaching and partnered with my dad,” she said. “Some of the orchard we farm has been in my family for almost 100 years.”
The orchard is now entering its fifth generation in the family, with the Werner’s oldest son, Sawyer, planning to one day oversee the operations.
When asked if the Werners had advice for aspiring orchardists, Richard said: “It’s a lifestyle. You’re not amongst the rich and famous.”
Jill echoed him.
“To be a farmer, the kind of farming we do, it is a lifestyle choice about how you are living and raising your family and where you get to live.”
The Werners employ five full-time employees and the rest are employees seasonally.
“We have some of the best people,” Jill said. “We value our employees. I think we could not do what we do without them. I can’t say enough about how vital it is to treat your employees well. Treat them not as a commodity, but as people. It’s so valuable to build relationships, and for them to know we care about them.”
The couple agreed that their joint interest in the business, a common faith and love for family have been the key to their success.
“One thing that I think is unique between Richard and I is that we are a team,” Jill said. “We do this together and always have.
“We also raised our kids as part of the team. The farm is part of the family. As soon as they (children) could drag a shovel, they were helping. We always had them as part of those conversations. Either one of us without the other would be hard-pressed to figure it out.”
“We are really invested in farming, our life and what we’ve built,” Jill said. “A common faith is a huge, huge part. Our church is a big part of who we are and what we do.”
Richard said being a farmer is not just a 9-to-5 job, but rather a lifestyle.
“We live it and we breathe it." ♦
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