Learning from the ground up: 2021 Good Fruit Grower of the Year – Good Fruit Grower

learning-from-the-ground-up:-2021-good-fruit-grower-of-the-year-–-good-fruit-grower

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Mike Robinson began his career as a field representative and has grown to become an industry stalwart. Here he inspects the soil under his organic Aztec Fuji apple block in September near Othello, Washington. Robinson, a grower and president of Double Diamond Fruit in Quincy, is the 2021 Good Fruit Grower of the Year. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)Mike Robinson constantly seeks ways to do things better.When he took the helm at Double Diamond Fruit a few years ago, he standardized pooling and accounting practices to increase transparency among owners. In the orchard, he was one of the first to use louvered netting panels so he could capitalize on sunshine and cool without water. When hand blossom thinning got too expensive in the 1990s, he and some fellow managers cobbled together a predecessor of the orchard platform.“Mike Robinson has been one of the people in this industry that asks questions that make people think about why they aren’t thinking about things in different ways,” said Mike Willett, retired manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and a former tree fruit extension specialist.That curiosity and itch for improvement is one reason why Robinson, the president of Double Diamond Fruit in Quincy, Washington, has been named the 2021 Good Fruit Grower of the Year by the magazine’s advisory board. Robinson has always looked skeptically at the status quo, an attitude reinforced by many of his varied roles in the industry, he said. His management days at the Auvil Fruit Co. were formative; they were one of the first to blossom thin, plant poplars and move toward high density.“If everybody’s going one direction, I’m suspicious that they’re wrong,” Robinson said.Robinson also has contributed to the industry through numerous research collaborations, served on advisory panels and industry groups and, most recently, postponed his retirement for a second time to lead a company that suddenly lost its president, Warren Morgan, to a car crash in 2019.“Somebody had to keep all the balls in the air,” Robinson said. Robinson, a partner in Double Diamond, first served as the company’s general manager, responsible for day-to-day operations of the warehouse, under Morgan. About three years before the accident, Robinson stepped down from the warehouse job as a move toward retirement, but Morgan called him back to help integrate a new packing line.After the crash, the company’s partners asked Robinson, armed with a varied background and wide skill set, to step up.“I can’t see that there would have been another choice,” said Camille Morgan, the chief financial officer of Double Diamond and Warren’s sister. It was the right one, too, for the shocked families and employees.“He really extended himself in a way that he wouldn’t have had to, but he did,” she said. “I personally am really grateful to him because it was just a very hard time, and he was just a stalwart.”Robinson discusses a run of Honeycrisp apples in September with Bridget Pershall, left, and Derek Allred at the Double Diamond packing facility in Quincy. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)Robinson and Warren Morgan lived in the same dorm at Washington State University and studied horticulture together. He spoke at the funeral of his friend, the 2004 Good Fruit Grower of the Year.Since then, Robinson has done more than just keep the ship afloat. He made changes that Camille Morgan thinks are for the better. When her brother, the majority owner, led things, he kept a tighter lid on information because Quincy is a small community. Robinson ushered in a more transparent information system, urging Camille Morgan and accounting employees to centralize their spreadsheets in the company’s accounting software. The company also has designs for a multilane batching sizer and an expansion for a pre-size machine with double the capacity.He seeks improvement in little things, too. Walking through the packing line during a Honeycrisp run this year, he noticed too many bubbles in the water of the pre-size vacuum bin filler and asked a supervisor to find out why. Bubbles cause turbulence that can damage fruit.Robinson is grooming Derek Allred, the manager of the packing facility and a member of one of the company’s partner families, to succeed him as company president in the future.Robinson walks with longtime farm employee Norberto Perez to discuss cover crop seeding at an Othello V-trellis cherry block in September. The two are trying to cut down on broadleaf weeds, which can host the leafhoppers that are vectors for X disease. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)Allred said Robinson treats people fairly and has a concern for their well-being, underneath his gruff exterior. And Allred, a married father of eight, appreciates Robinson’s counsel on work-life balance.Robinson also offers perspective, Allred said. When food safety audits began years ago, growers groused, but Robinson, who has worked on sales desks and met with buyers in Taiwan, convinced many of his colleagues to view it as an opportunity. The industry is going through a rough economic stretch now, but Robinson reminds Allred it’s not the first rodeo.“Having that perspective brings a lot of comfort and calm and direction,” Allred said.Also, Robinson and Jim Baird are transitioning day-to-day decisions of their farm partnership, BMR Orchards, to Baird’s son, Jamie, and their longtime manager, Jose Luis Perez. “My goal is to make myself entirely superfluous and just a general annoyance by harvest of the 2023 crop,” Robinson said. He and his wife, Lisa, a retired art teacher, plan to spend retirement traveling, fishing, snorkeling and pursuing other hobbies.Buffet-style careerRobinson’s career path differs from many in the industry. He has worn a wide variety of hats and intentionally never lived on any of the farms at which he worked, to give his family space between his busy work and their own lives. Even now, he’s a partner in four different businesses.“He has done most jobs in this industry,” said Karen Lewis, the director of WSU Extension’s agriculture unit and a longtime tree fruit extension specialist who has collaborated on several projects with Robinson. “That’s what makes Mike’s voice matter.”Robinson and Jim Baird, his partner in BMR Orchards, chat during a break from tilling mustard seed meal into tree rows at the site of a 2017 experiment with fumigation alternatives in the Columbia Basin. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)His parents owned an orchard in Tonasket, Washington, and he helped with thinning, harvest and other chores during high school. But the son of an electrical engineer doesn’t consider himself a multigeneration grower. Robinson actually spent much of his adolescence in California.He bought his first orchard at age 19, while enrolled in WSU’s horticulture program, and farmed with borrowed equipment and a down payment from his grandparents, which he paid back the first year. The timing was right: He cashed in on two unusually profitable years for the fruit industry and thought he was an excellent farmer. “The next 10 years disabused me of that notion,” he said.Mike Robinson runs a starch test on WA 38, the apple marketed as Cosmic Crisp, in September in Othello. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)His first job was as a field representative for Wilbur-Ellis. He later managed a branch in Royal City and helped open a new branch in Quincy. Following the research of WSU entomologist Stan Hoyt, he helped his growers implement integrated pest management for mite control.He then spent 10 years at Auvil Fruit Co., learning nearly every facet of the industry — orchard management, packing line operation, sales and crew management. Auvil Fruit honed Robinson’s tendency to buck trends and share ideas with the rest of the industry. The company had orchards of Granny Smith apples on M.26 rootstock in double rows at 1,400 trees per acre at a time when most of the state had Red Delicious at 200 trees per acre. Grady Auvil also pioneered early chemical bloom thinning, lessons Robinson still calls upon in his thinning programs today. When tours visited the orchards, Robinson was often leading the way.Robinson leads a 1980s tour in a V-trellis block at an Auvil Fruit Co. orchard near Vantage. (Courtesy Wenatchee World)His Auvil tenure also steered him to join the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and chair the entomology committee, where he supported work by Vince Jones, Larry Gut and Alan Knight to develop the Decision Aid System and write the book on organic pest control. Until recently, he served on the commission’s apple horticulture committee and is currently cooperating on a soil fumigation alternative project with WSU researchers. In 1999, he left Auvil to start his own consulting and farm management company with Warren Morgan. In 2002, the two joined with Jim Baird to found BMR Orchards in the Frenchman Hills near Othello. The next year, he flew to New Zealand to check out a block of Aztec Fuji, liked what he saw and flew home the next day. The company planted half the farm to the high-color strain, along with Ultima Gala and Granny Smith. A few years later, they grafted the Grannies to Honeycrisp and installed shade netting. Cherries replaced apricots in 2014.About 10 years ago, they transitioned the Galas and Fujis to organic, capitalizing on the site’s low pest pressure. Robinson said he enjoys the practical challenges that come with organic farming, while his partner approaches it philosophically.Mike Robinson evaluates organic Aztec Fuji harvest with farm manager Jose Luis Perez in October. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)“If Jim (Baird) is a true believer, I’m more of an economic opportunist,” he said. “It’s something I can do well and get paid for it.”Since then, they have improved the orchard with louvered netting, drip irrigation and variable frequency drive water control, an efficient type of controller that varies the frequency and voltage of an electric motor’s power supply. It offers more efficiency than on/off panels and allows for precision control over volume and pressure in drip lines.He also worked four years steering Stemilt Management, the farm management arm of the Wenatchee company now named Stemilt Ag Services. He learned a lot from the company and the Mathison family, including how to fly a Cessna, but he spent more of his time with the business side of fruit and missed the horticulture. In 2009, Robinson bought into the Double Diamond company with Morgan and became the general manager, a role in which he spent time both in the warehouse and in the orchard. At the same time, Morgan sold shares to Jerry, Wylie and Randy Allred, three brothers and longtime farmers and orchardists on the Royal Slope. Jerry Allred is Derek’s father.Robinson walks outside at the Double Diamond Fruit packing facility in Quincy. Postponing his retirement in 2019, he took the position of company president after his predecessor, business partner, and longtime friend Warren Morgan died unexpectedly. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)OutspokenThrough those many roles, Robinson has built a reputation for speaking his mind.Some recent examples: He is frustrated about the failure of the WSU endowment committee, on which he served, to find a soil researcher after three attempts. He has publicly criticized the rollout of WA 38, the university’s new apple marketed as Cosmic Crisp. Among his complaints are the per-box royalties instituted by WSU and late recognition of horticultural problems such as greasiness.“People are used to me chucking grenades,” he said.Lewis of WSU thinks he’s being too hard on himself.Robinson questions decisions and voices opposition that many are thinking but won’t say, she said. Even then, however, he keeps his focus on solutions, always saying yes to her requests for collaboration, panels or presentations. “If he doesn’t have a solution, he’s going to work with you to get there,” she said.Kyle Mathison also appreciated Robinson’s candor, both at Stemilt and when they served on the research commission together. Robinson asked good, sometimes hard, questions of his colleagues and researchers, and he wasn’t afraid to disagree. “He’s opinionated, and that’s what I love about him,” Mathison said.One year in the early 2000s, Mathison received a low $49 per bin on Golden Delicious apples that had fallen into an alternate bearing cycle. Mathison wanted to give up on them, but Robinson talked him out of it. The company tripled the bin profits the next year. In the end, Robinson helped Stemilt establish timing of their chemical thinning and moderate alternate bearing in many orchards.“He said, ‘Your orchard is capable of producing 110 bins per acre,’” Mathison said. “He was right.”Longtime organic orchardist Harold Ostenson, who worked with Robinson at Stemilt Ag Services, also lauded Robinson’s skills with chemical bloom thinning, calling him a “wizard” with timing, and with organic transitions. Baird, his orchard partner, chalked up Robinson’s frankness as firm but fair communication and management.Robinson has a knack for placing the right people in the right situations for overall success, with an eye to ethics, Baird said. The best part is he pairs those skills with sound financial decisions and intuitive horticultural acumen, making him a rare complete package.“Mike has all of those skills,” Baird said. “That’s what made him so unique — in my world anyway.” —by Ross Courtney
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