by TAMI SCHLIES
It rained hard all the way up the Gorge from Portland, Oregon, and I was sure we were going to get soaked. But as we neared the Hood River exit, the clouds began to shred with the wind, and by the time we reached our first orchard – Pearl’s Place, the sun had come out in perfect heat. Orchards spread across rolling hills, interspersed by large native tree stands, as far as the eyes could see, expanding further with every turn along the valley. The clouds were still present enough to block any view of Mt. Hood for the entire trip, but I had come to see fruit.
Mount Hood has been inactive for a long time, but eons ago, eruptions filled the valley with fertile, mineral rich, volcanic soil. Add to that centuries of organic decomposition, as well as cool nights and warm days in the summer growing season, and you have perfect fruit tree conditions.
Hood River Valley is the largest pear growing district in the nation. If you have eaten Anjou, Bosc, or Comice pears (I can’t imagine anyone has not had at least one of these!), you likely ate fruit grown in the Hood River Valley. 75% of the fruit trees here are pears, but they are also famous for their Newton Pippin apples. Vineyards are also appearing here and there, as Oregon attempts to compete in the growing winemaking industry.
During our tour, we saw several signs along the way encouraging people to buy U.S. produce, especially apples. Many of the orchards carry new or unusual varieties in smaller volume, hoping to capture consumers with better flavor than the old standby “Delicious” varieties.
Our first stop at Pearl’s Place set the scene for the rest of the trip – 5 varieties of apple, 5 varieties of pear, 2 types of plums, and a bin of asian pears. Then there were the other items lining the walls – jams and fruit butters, hot or cold apple cider, pies and pasteries, and arts and craft items. Though we had come at a time between the many festivals celebrated in Hood River, Pearl’s Place was very lively, with some people buying a few fruit for the road, and others hauling out cases of one fruit or another. Here I tried my first Star Crimson Pear, and fell in love with it’s sweet aroma creamy texture, and vivid crimson skin.
Up the road a little ways we came to Rasmussen Farms, which had by far the largest variety of fruit of any orchard we visited. They offered 10 kinds of apple, 18 of pear, 3 of asian pears, several types of nuts and garden produce, and a few stragglers of cherries and plums. They were having their Apple Express Days and gearing up for the Pumpkin Funland they have every year. Here I was introduced to Danish Abelskivers (apple cakes) and had to later go find an antique abelskiver pan of my own. These have no apple in them, but are wonderful with hazelnut applebutter spread on top!
As we progressed up the valley toward Mt. Hood, we collected handouts, recipes, advice, and, of course, fruit. Some of you got to sample some of the fruit I brought back with me at our October meeting. We stopped for a late lunch at Mt. Hood Express, where we met Mr. Kiyokawa of Kiyokawa farms as he was bringing a shipment of fruit to the restaurant. He did not speak English very well, but agreed to let us follow him back to his family farm to speak to his son. We self toured the U-Pick orchard, featuring over 30 different apple varieties, picked a few fruit along the way, and as the end of the day neared, and rain began to fall again, we retreated inside to speak to Randy Kiyokawa.
Randy was very helpful and informative about fruit growing in the area. At 2200 feet, his farm was almost 2000 feet higher in elevation than the first orchard we had visited on the tour, and that made his ripening dates 2 weeks later. He could also grow some varieties those further north could not, since he had a higher chill factor. He owns 107 acres of fruit, of which 5 to seven are U-Pick. I was surprised to learn that they only have a 20 to 25 year life span on their apple trees in the orchards, since I tend to think of apples as more long lived.
The trees in the orchard were very heavily laden, with bare dirt around the trees and grass between the rows. Randy uses Round-Up twice a season around the trees to get rid of weeds, and mows between the rows. Each tree has it’s own thick post set next to it at planting, and the tree is trained in the slender spindle method to wind around the post rather serpentlike. He says this increases production due to hormone changes, and I could believe him by looking at the trees. Most of the trees in the U-Pick lot were 7 years old, and I jealously caressed the plump apples covering the branches. Our trees up here take twice as long to get that big! He had them spaced only 5 feet apart, with 15 feet between rows for the tractor.
M9 rootstock is his first choice, with M26 not far behind. I saw several bud grafts in the orchard, and was informed that this was how he tried new varieties. Planning far in advance, he would graft onto the end trees new varieties to see how it might do in that spot when the current trees were removed, either due to age, disease, or simply not performing up to his standards. This grafting he would do with his father, but when the time came to graft hundreds of trees, he would hire migrant grafters, as seemed to be common in Oregon.
Randy was as much into the beauty of what he grew as he was into the production. He had flowers planted at the entrance to his barn, and sculpted shrubbery along paths to the family home next door. His spiraling fruit trees were lovely and very neatly kept. The newest project this year was a stand of Kiwi fruit – Kolomikta – next to the parking lot. He had the overhead trellising all ready, though the plants were still small even after a season of growth. His intention is to place benches underneath the vines for people who come visit the farm to sit under in the shade, with the added bonus of U-Pick fruit in the fall.
My children had retreated to the car long ago to get warm after the rain, and the car horn sounded for the second time, calling me away from the orchard. It had been a long day for all of us, and I had more tours planned later that week. If I get back to that area again, I will definitely visit Kiyokawa farms again, to see what new thing the family has delved in to. If you would like to see some photos of the area, the Kiyokawa’s have a very nice website at www.mthoodfruit.com. You can also learn more about the Hood River tour at www.hoodriverfruitloop.com