Ron and Cheryl Stewart began growing tree-fruit in Hood River, Oregon in 1975, transitioning to organic in 1989, with this year marking the third decade for Columbia Gorge Organic as an organic fruit pioneer producing organic apples and pears.
Having owned several dry-cleaning businesses in San Jose, CA the couple wanted to get out of the rat race and “back to the land.” They loaded their three young boys into a motor home and toured the country. When they arrived in Hood River in the fall of 1975---and knowing nothing about growing---the Stewarts bought a farm and began managing the apples and pears in the existing orchard.
In 1989 their oldest son was graduating college and the couple wanted him to join their operation. He told them he would interest in joining them with one stipulation---- they went into organic growing and farming. At the time, nobody was growing organic apples and pears on a scale of 100 acres. The local extension agents and their neighbors told them they were crazy and wasn’t possible to do.
Columbia Gorge Organic apple
That year, when the Alar scare hit the media, it changed the dynamic of both the organic and apple markets.
Ben Johnson, founder of Bridges Produce, has been representing the Stewart’s fruit for 17 years. “When they were first certified, they were the largest organic orchard around, now they are a small family farm living in the niche of the giant packing houses,” Johnson said. “They were a fundamental foundation for my business because they were a well-known grower with an appreciated label. I am very conscious that I am standing on the shoulders of those who came before me. They are true pioneers and early adopters within the industry.”
Ben Johnson, founder, Bridges Produce
When the Stewarts first adopted organic practices there was no history of how to combat apple scab, coddling moth and russeting using strictly organic methods. Through their own experimentation the couple figured it, with many of the techniques they developed still in use today. The pair, for example, helped develop techniques to fight russeting and apple scab using organic methods, and were early adopters in the use of integrated pest management.
Columbia Gorge organic orchard
Today, sons’ Ronny and Jimmy Stewart manage 200 acres of organic orchard along their mother Cheryl. Ronny estimates that they have applied over 30,000 tons of compost on their orchards over the past 30 years.
In 1995, the Stewarts began making juice because their cull rates were high, due to coddling moth. Two years later, they added more SKU’s including citrus and today the full line of 100 percent organic refrigerated juices is a big part of their business.
“Business is like a wheel. You have one spoke up and one spoke down, that’s normal in business. But having multiple spokes is important to keep things moving,” Ron Stewart said.
Columbia Gorge orchards distribution
The Hood River Valley is much cooler and wetter than Eastern Washington, so the Stewarts chose varieties that are resistance to russeting and apple scab. Varieties like Empires, Liberties, Enterprise, Pristine’s, bred at Perdue Rutgers Indiana Breeding Program are disease resistant and unique in the marketplace
“One of the biggest challenges is the cost of production and cost of land, because Hood River is becoming a popular vacation area. The availability of agricultural labor where the cost of living is high is a constant battle,” Johnson said.