Ask Randy Kiyokawa if he always wanted to be a farmer and he will laugh, saying that in middle school he wanted to be a disc jockey or a police officer. However, as the youngest of five, and the only boy, he knew that sooner or later he would return to the farm where he was raised.
His grandfather landed in Dee, Oregon in 1911, six years after arriving in the continental United States from his native Japan. Stopping in Hawaii along the way to make money, he worked on railroads in California, then took a job in Dee clearing stumps left from a logging operation. The land he received as payment for his labor was passed down to his oldest son in the Japanese tradition. Randy’s aunt and uncle currently farm that land and Randy’s father bought what is now Kiyokawa Family Orchards in Parkdale, Oregon in 1951. Randy currently farms 107 acres, with 80% in pears, 15% in apples and the remaining acreage in a variety of fruits including cherries, peaches and plums.
Twenty-two years ago, Kiyokawa Family Orchards sold exclusively to packing houses, namely Diamond Fruit Growers, Hood River’s only grower-owned cooperative. In the 1980s, media attention about the harmful effects of the chemical Adar (sprayed primarily on apples) caused consumers to steer clear of all apples regardless of contact with the chemical. Kiyokawa Family Orchards and other apple growers watched fruit rot on their trees as it proved cheaper than paying for harvesting with little hope of sales as well as the additional costs of disposing unsold fruit.
In the midst of this crisis, Randy picked a bin of Red Delicious apples, selling them for 5¢ per pound, 3¢ per pound to those who bought an entire box. This endeavor opened up lines of communication with customers that did not exist in commercial sales. Customers began asking for specific varieties. If Randy didn’t grow a particular variety, he asked his neighbors. If they didn’t grow it, Randy looked into the possibility of growing the variety himself. Current customers know that unique varieties are a trademark of Kiyokawa Family Orchards. Since Parkdale’s location at 2,200 feet and within Mount Hood’s snow belt is no guarantee that every variety will survive in his orchard, Randy plants a handful of trees to test both the flavor and their ability to thrive in his microclimate before deciding whether to invest in the variety.
Besides selecting apples that thrive on his land, Randy employs a variety of production methods, taking what he calls a “soft approach to pesticides and diseases”. For example, he uses a technique called “pheromone disruption” to eradicate the codling moth (think of the famous image of the worm in the apple). By spraying the orchard with the scent of the female, the males are unable to locate a mate and reproduction ceases. Also, like many other orchard owners, Randy looks to Europe for progressive growing techniques where land scarcity necessitates creative agricultural solutions. For example, Randy has learned mechanical ways to get rid of weeds to reduce his herbicide use.
Despite the best planning and production techniques, sometimes Mother Nature gets in the way. The long, cold spells this winter took their toll on some apple varieties, limiting the volume you will see at market. That is to say, don’t wait to buy your favorites! At the market this week, look out for the Zestar, a tangy, crisp, Gravenstein-like apple that keeps its crunch; and the Elstar, a full-flavored, sweet and tangy Dutch apple. In October, be sure to sample Randy’s favorite red-fleshed apple, the Hidden Rose.
by Daurie Mangan-Dimuzio, HFM volunteer and former staff, 2009