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FAMILY BLENDS TRADITION, INTERNET

 By Ed Stover, Yakima Herald-Republic

Published June 25, 2003

GRANDVIEW - For Don Olmstead Jr. and his family, Friday, June 13th , was an auspicious day.  "It was the day we started picking cherries," said Don Jr. 55, a third-generation grower and No. 2 in a line of four Donald Winston Olmsteads ranging in age from 85 years down to 9 months.

June 13 also marked the beginning of a new chapter in the family's tree fruit-growing story, one that began in the Orchard Tracts country south of Grandview more than 80 years ago.

It's a chapter titled "www.olmsteadorchards.com"

Not a title that would mean much to Fred and Alpha Olmstead or Roy and Beatrice Soot.  Those were the grandparents of Don Jr. and his wife, Barbara, 55, who, with their son, Donnie III, 29, and Donnie's wife, Molly, 27, now work the same ground.

But the grandparents would quickly grasp the point of the Olmsteads' new Web site.  They would likely say:  Hey, good way to sell cherries!

"We're getting quite a bit of interest already," said Don Jr., explaining that the first 2 1/2-pound cold packs of Bings and Rainiers bearing the Olmstead Orchards label were shipped out via UPS last week.  The quality of this year's crop is excellent, he said.

"Molly and I personally picked that fruit," added Donnie.

While the Web-sold fruit is but a sliver of the Olmsteads' total cherry crop (maybe one-half acre out of 130 acres), that share could grow in future years.

The Internet prices are hefty - 2 1/2 pounds of Rainiers cost $24.95, plus freight.  But buyers are getting the best, said Barbara, who, with Molly, handles bookkeeping and payroll chores for the orchard, which includes 80 acres of apples, pears, plums, and prunes.

"we've always tried to grow excellent fruit," she said.

The Web site, meanwhile, is the latest in a series of events to occur since Barbara and her husband made a choice a half-dozen years ago.

At the time, Donnie was Washington State University, with his eye on other careers.  Daughter Carrie Hay, now 31, was married and living in the Tri-Cities, where she is manager of the Columbia Valley Winery Association.

Don Jr. and his older brother, Pete, had been partners for years, taking over from their father, Don Sr.  Then Pete split off, wanting to do other things.  Don Jr. and Barbara continued on.

"We were comfortable, but at a point where we had to make a decision," said Don Jr.

For three generations, orcharding had been a way of life.  Was the tradition coming to an end?

"It had always been a family dream that a couple more generations could enjoy this life," said Don Jr.  "But, you know, a lot of growers around here - their sons aren't coming back (to the farm)."

The reasons vary.  Farming's a gamble, even for established operations.  And "it's tough to start out (from scratch) these days," said Barbara, citing the cost of land, which usually means a new operator has a loan to service.

At WSU, meanwhile, Donnie, who thought he'd seen enough cherries in his life, was having second thoughts.  He'd considered graphic arts, then wildlife managment, then architecture.

"I began to realize I knew more about growing cherries that I thought I knew," he said.

"He decided he liked dirt," joked Molly.

Much to his parents' delight, Donnie switched to horticulture.  Here was one child who would come home.  So would Molly.  She, too, is a Grandview native.

With them came new ideas.  Using the computer as a marketing tool was one.  Daughter Carrie is savvy, too.  It was Carrie who set up the Web site.

"It was the kids that got us going on this," said Don Jr.

"They're more computer-literate," added Barbara.  "We said, 'You take the ball, you run with it.'"

Some chance publicity stoked the fire.  It started in 1999 when Taiwanese pop star Gig Leung filmed a music video at the orchard.  That got the attention of Seattle Post-Intellingencer food writer Hsiao-Ching Chou, who has become a regular visitor to the orchard.  Seattle-area people who read her articles also visit.

So when Esquire magazine asked Chou to suggest a cherry orchard for a "Best Places" piece the magazine published in its June issue, she knew who to mention.

The time for www.olmsteadorchards.com was right.

The Washington Fruit Commission has helped by providing a link on its Web site to Olmstead Orchards.  The commission also sent two boxes of Olmstead cherries to Governor Gary Locke.

Barbara Olmstead hopes the Web site will educate people, too.  Growing cherries is a crap shoot for many reasons, weather being the main variable.

"It's amazing how many people don't know what goes on in an orchard," she said.

Meanwhile, a fifth-generation of Olmsteads waits in the wings.  Don Jr. thinks his grandson, Don IV, age 9 months, has potential:  "When he falls down and bangs his head, he laughs - I think he might have what it takes to be a farmer."

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