Family Trees

Owner Ron Kelley Tells About Four Generations Of Fruit Growers At Kelley Orchards

Family Trees

By Heather Smith Thomas, Idaho

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Ron Kelley and his family are enjoying their orchard business in southern Idaho, near Weiser.

“My father and grandfather were citrus growers in southern California, growing oranges and grapefruit since the 1930s,” Ron said. “I have a cousin who runs that business. I still have a small interest in it, with my sisters, but am not involved in the operation. I moved here to Idaho in 1986, looking to do something a little different. I found this 35 acre property and orchard for sale, and came to see it with my father. After my parents bought the property, my sister Kathy decided to join me temporarily. Now, 27 years later, she and her family are fruit-growers right next door. This orchard was already established and even though we had some background in growing fruit, these crops were very different from what we were used to. This orchard was mostly apples, some plums and a few cherries. We have fewer acres planted now than when we first came, but more varieties of fruit. Now about half our acreage is in apples. The rest is peaches, nectarines, plums and cherries,”  he says.

Marketing the fruit has changed a lot since the beginning. “When we started, most of our fruit was marketed through a packing house. We would pick it, haul it in, and they would pack and market it  for us. Now we market much of  it ourselves through a farmers market in Boise, and through a U-pick here at the orchard, and sales at our place.”

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When fruit is in season, many people come to pick their own.

“We’ve done the U-pick for eight years. It started very small, but has been steadily growing. Now there’s quite a crowd out here in August and September for peaches, and for the apples in October. We are 60 miles north of Boise, but most of our clientele live closer, in Payette and Weiser. Our orchard is located between those two towns.”

Many customers enjoy a pleasant drive in the country and come to pick fruit.

“We are getting more people coming from Boise. We are part of a farmers market there called Capital City, in downtown Boise (open on Saturdays), and people are familiar with our produce. We’ve been part of that since 2002 and it’s a popular spot when our fruit is in season. We get some exposure there, and now some people like to bring their families out to the orchard and pick their own,” he says.

In 1993 his sister Kathy began experimenting with drying apples. By 1995 they launched a dried apple product called “AppleCrisp” through small grocery stores in Eugene, Oregon, and Sun Valley, Idaho. “We packaged the dried fruit for a few small chain stores in Eugene and Sun Valley, sold wholesale and shipped in printed packages with our Kelley Orchards label. We discontinued that and now focus on marketing our own, closer to home—through our own store or the farmers market,” he says. Since then, Ron and his wife, Kimi, have developed flavored apple chips as well as other dried fruits and fruit mixes in response to customer requests at farmers markets. With increasing local sales of both dried and fresh fruit, they dropped the AppleCrisp line last year and are now focusing more on local sales. “One of the things that brought us to the farmers market in Boise is our dried fruit. We’ve been doing that for 19 years. A lot of our dried fruit goes through the farmers market in the spring when there’s no fresh fruit available yet. The dried fruit keeps a long time,” says Kelley.

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The fruit they dry in the fall is often sold the next spring and all through the year.

“We rotate it every 12 months or so but we’ve kept some for three years. If it’s dried properly, with the right amount of moisture, it keeps a long time without spoiling or molding. Most commercially dried fruit utilizes sulfur as a preservative, but we don’t do any sulfuring on ours, and this is part of our niche in the market. Most dried fruit has some kind of preservative added but we don’t use any of that. We just try to dry it to an optimal condition without preservatives. If it’s sulfured you can hold more moisture in the fruit, but without sulfur it has to be drier to keep it from molding,” he explains.

Dried fruit is handy to take hiking or camping, and is popular just for snacks. “This part of the business has worked out very well for us,” says Kelley. This has extended their market year-round and also creates a way to utilized blemished fruit.  It adds value to the lower grades  of fruit.

“This is why we started the drying. We always have some blemished apples that are not proper quality to pack and ship.  So we keep them and dry them. If the internal quality is good it doesn’t matter what the outside looks like. Now we pack and sort most of our stone fruit (peaches, plums and nectarines) here in boxes, sell the boxes, and the off-grade fruit we dry,” he explains. The vast majority of the apples are marketed through packers and processors. There’s not much value in juice apples, so they prefer to dry the lower grade apples.

“I have one full-time person in the field working with me, and several more seasonal workers who help with other aspects of the business. We have three people who work in the drying operation through fall and winter, and some of them also work in the store here at the orchard during most of the year,” he says.

“My wife Kimi works with me in the farmer’s market, but is mainly busy raising our kids right now. Our kids are Aaron, age 3, Joshua, age 6 and Shayla, who is 8 years old. They love to eat fruit! I give my wife Kimi all the credit for moving us into the U-pick business. It was her initiative, to get that started. I didn’t think it would work for us here, because we are not very close to large population centers. But if there’s something people want, they will drive out to get it. I learned that, and it’s been a good part of our business now, for the past seven years,” he says.

There were only a few small, new plantings of Hale and Elberta peaches in this orchard when they started. “Those are widely known as good canning peaches that ripen in the fall. When we saw how popular those tree-ripened peaches were, we decided to plant some earlier and later varieties to extend our peach season, which now goes from late July through mid-September. Each variety lasts about 10 to 14 days, so this helps spread out our marketing. We planted more varieties, to have enough peaches to sell for a longer time,” he says.

They also added nectarines. “The bulk of our sales at that time are peaches, but most people like to pick up a few nectarines, too, and a few plums. Peaches are the most fun to grow. We grow most of the peach trees in a V or Y shape, about five feet apart down the row. The trees are pruned to have just two limbs, preferably with one pointed to the east and one to the west, to gather the most sunshine.” This gives optimum growing and ripening conditions.

“With trees we are simply harvesting sunshine, like any plant. They get the east sun in the morning and then it progresses  over to the west in the afternoon.  It shines down the middle of  each tree and this helps keep the lower part of the tree fruitful. This makes it easy to figure out how to prune them, and easy to work in them. The trees are built simpler,” says Kelley.

“Growers are using a similar thought in apple trees now. Most orchards prefer small dwarf apple trees. They are easier to pick, and the sun penetrates all the way into the middle without a large shaded area. The traditional older trees were big, spaced 30-feet apart. They are more difficult to work with and it takes them a long time to grow into that whole space and fill it with fruit, so you are waiting a lot of years for harvest. The smaller trees can be planted a lot closer together and you get your first harvest quicker. The labor is less for pruning, thinning, picking, and all the other hand operations we have to do. It costs more to plant because it’s a lot more trees to get started—and many of them are on a trellis or posts and wire,” he explains.

The trees are all watered with mini-sprinklers. These are small, plastic sprinklers situated about every 15 to 20 feet down the row, broadcasting the water through the whole orchard.

“We do a little bit of drip irrigation on some of it, particularly on the young trees. I am trying to grow some trees this way and may switch over entirely to the drip method. Our water is cheap, but the pumping costs are becoming more expensive. The drip system enables us to use less water. It’s a very efficient system the way we do it now, with no run-off,” he explains. Their water comes out of the Cascade Reservoir on the Payette River. The snow pack this year is fairly good, which will help.

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The young trees must be protect-ed from deer. “All the new plantings that we put in are encircled with electric fence until those trees get big enough to where the deer don’t bother them as much. They can destroy a new orchard very quickly,” he says.

The life span varies, with different types of trees. “Apples are probably the longest-lived. I have one apple tree left that I decided to save, that was planted in 1946. It’s the oldest one on the place. The rest have all been replaced. Many of the earlier trees we’ve grafted over the past  15 years. We had a lot of red delicious here, and the market for them has gone downhill. People finally discovered that there are a lot of better-tasting apples.” Red delicious are beautiful but they don’t taste as good as they look.

“Fuji apples are our most popular U-pick apples here. So we grafted a lot of our red delicious over to Fuji, granny smith, gala and different kinds. Fujis are good apples and hold up well without getting mushy or mealy. This has been a very popular apple and there are new ones coming. We watch for those and evaluate them,” he says.

“At the farmers market people  are always looking for new things. And the ‘new’ sometimes is old. People are now interested in some of the antique apples like winesap and Arkansas black. We can sell some of these older types of apples at the farmers market because people want to try something they’ve never tried before,” he explains.

“The orchard business is not something that a person can get rich at, the way that we do it, but it’s a good way of life and we enjoy providing a lot of good food for people—and they seem to appreciate it.”

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