MILTON-FREEWATER — Ron LeFore’s family apple farm is a mom-and-pop orchard selling apples across the globe.
“Just this morning, we loaded up boxes to be sent to Saudi Arabia,” said LeFore, co-owner of Ron LeFore Apple Farm. “Yesterday, we sent apples to Honduras.”
He said they also ship to other places such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Dona LeFore, co-owner of the farm and LeFore’s wife, said they are heavy producers of Red Delicious apples, a variety that is not so coveted in the United States as it is around the world.
“You can hardly sell Red Delicious apples in big stores,” she said. “We export most of our reds, which is fine because other countries like them.”
Her husband said the Red Delicious apple is dependable, more shelf stable and easier to cultivate. This variety of apple can be stored for up to a year if done properly.
“For us, it makes us the most money out of the varieties we grow,” he said.
Ron LeFore Apple Farm grows Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Fuji, Honeycrisp and Braeburn apples. The farm sells commercially but on the Saturdays throughout harvest, which typically starts in August, they offer various varieties of apples that are slightly flawed for sale in bulk.
When slicing up an apple, it is easy to savor the flavor without fully appreciating the work that goes into growing it. Ron LeFore said it isn’t as easy as planting a seed and watching it grow, especially when there are 200 acres of apple trees to care for.
He said his typical morning has him up before the sun, usually around 3:30 a.m.
“I wake up, read the Bible for a bit, watch the news, eat breakfast and then I am on my way,” LeFore said. “I’m at the pack house by 5:30 or 6 a.m. most mornings.”
From there, the day is spent running around the orchards surrounding the property, filling out paperwork and making sure everything is up to par. He said he normally works 12-hour days and will rack up about 20,000 steps in that time.
Dona and Ron LeFore have been married for more than 50 years. LeFore said her husband has always had farming in his blood, going back to when he was just a year old and sitting on his father’s lap while he drove a tractor.
“Ever since he could walk, he was outside helping his dad with farm work,” she said. “His parents would tell me that he wouldn’t get off the tractor unless he had fallen asleep.”
After they were married, the couple settled down and had three girls, all of whom grew up working and roaming the farm and packing house. Amy, Anna and Angie all work in some capacity on the farm.
In 2008, their youngest daughter, Angie, returned to Milton-Freewater from Oregon State University with a degree in nutrition and food management. She now works full time on the farm and oversees the packing facility, apple sales and the farm’s employees.
Picking and packing
An apple’s lifecycle starts in the orchard when a tree’s seeds are first planted. The tree will grow from a sprout to a mature plant, taking anywhere from three to six years. The tree produces buds that eventually bloom into flowers in the spring. Bees pollinate the flowers that eventually become apples that grow bigger and sweeter in the fall.
Out in the orchards, the apples are plucked from branches and then carefully placed in large wooden bins. A tractor moves the bins to the packing house, which is on the LeFore property. The apples are then sent down a packing line where they are washed, waxed, sorted by size and then eventually placed in cardboard boxes.
The massive, automated machines used to expedite the process are a far cry from the way packing houses used to be. Ron Lefore said he still remembers being 9 years old and hand polishing each apple with a rag.
Now the farm uses machines that automatically sort the apples by color, size and quality. The apples are still carefully hand packed into boxes, though.
LeFore has also installed wind machines in the orchards — large fans that pull warm air down to help protect crops from frost. He said the new technology is helpful because of the impact weather has on an orchard. One year, LeFore said hail from a freak storm hit about 20 acres of his trees, damaging them so badly that they didn’t bear fruit for nearly two years. Just last year, Milton-Freewater took the brunt of a major hailstorm that damaged homes and crops.
Beyond weather, there is a variety of other things to worry about in terms of farming.
Milton-Freewater was once home to many orchards. LeFore said he remembers when there were rows and rows of trees that had peaches, cherries and apples. Now, many of those orchards have been replaced by grape vines and urban sprawl. In 20 years, he said, there might not be any apple orchards left in the Walla Walla Valley.
Besides land development and acquisitions, the 1989 Alar scare affected the apple industry, shuttering several family-owned orchards across the United States.
This crisis was triggered by a study concerning Alar — a chemical employed for regulating growth and improving the efficiency of apple harvests — which suggested potential carcinogenic properties.
“That hit my parents pretty hard,” LeFore said. “The price for apples just dropped down to nothing. We couldn’t sell them to anybody.”
Throughout the challenges, LeFore said, he still wouldn’t have changed a thing about his work and the path he chose.
“I love the work that I do,” he said. “I’ve learned so much about life in this job.”
Farming in the blood
The LeFore family has been farming for generations, and the legacy started in the United States when a few members of the family emigrated from Ukraine in the early 1900s. They eventually landed in the Walla Walla Valley, a place said to look a lot like their home in Ukraine.
After World War II, decorated Army veteran Aaron LeFore, Ron LeFore’s father, sowed the seeds of the successful orchard in Milton-Freewater. He started in 1946, and by the 1970s the orchard had reached 55 acres.
Golden Delicious, Reds, Jonathans, Romes and Macintosh varieties were grown, and as the rows of trees grew, so did Ron LeFore’s love for farming. LeFore married Dona, and in 1978 he bought 10 acres from his father. By the mid-1980s the couple had built a farmhouse, where they still live today.
The LeFores agreed that their business would not be possible without the employees who show up to work every day. Some employees have been working at the farm for more than 30 years.
“They’re really like family,” she said. “We have new people every year, but at least half of the crew has been here a long time.”
“I don’t know where we would be without them,” her husband added.
So what is it about farming that has kept Ron LeFore in the business for more than 40 years? He said it is the miracle of life and watching things grow.
“There are trees that you see in the winter that just look dead,” he said. “There’s no leaves and the bark is bare. Then something magical happens in the spring when that same tree grows green leaves and blooms. The bees come out and do their thing and then you have apples.”
For the LeFore family, farming is in their blood and a way of life.
“This life has been so good to us and our kids,” Dona LeFore said. “I remember taking the kids out in a little red wagon that had cups of fertilizer in it. We would go out and fertilize the baby trees and watch them grow.”
“It has truly been a journey,” Ron LeFore said, smiling at his wife. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
More info For more information about Ron LeFore Apple Farm, 54193 Highway 332, in Milton-Freewater, call 541-938-7349 or visit its website at ronleforeapplefarm.com.