Orchardist uproots trees to cut costs

In what she termed an "agonizing decision," orchardist Camille Hukari ordered eight acres of Anjou pear trees to be uprooted on Thursday.

"I'm terrified about whether I've done the right thing but my costs have just continued to climb and my returns have just continued to go down," said Hukari, who manages 60 acres of varied fruit trees in the lower valley.

Hukari, a fourth-generation orchardist, said she had to pay $450-$500 per acre to hire the heavy equipment needed to rip out the trees, but will save $48,000 in operating costs that she would have be unable to recoup under current market conditions.

"These trees were planted 82 years ago and have employed a lot of people, but I had to cut my losses and that was the only way I knew to do it," she said.

Because of the county's pest control ordinance, Hukari said she couldn't let the trees just sit uncared for in the hope that the market climate would change. She said the county requires that untreated orchards be razed to prevent other tracts within the valley's 15,000 acres of fruit trees from becoming infested with insects.

Hukari predicts that without immediate government and consumer intervention, the sight of downed trees will become familiar throughout the Hood River Valley as area farmers succumb to large-scale financial losses. Steve Short, owner of Valley Ag Service, Inc. of Parkdale, said in the past year his business has removed 200 acres of fruit trees, some to be replanted and some not.

"What is this wide-spread mass destruction going to look like for visitors?" asked Hukari. "If something doesn't change the rest of the valley is going to look just like this."

Last year, local orchardists sustained more than a $28 million loss, the lowest point in 13 years. Conversely, during that same year, their expenses hit an all-time high at $3.4 billion because of rising costs for energy, fertilizer, seeds, fuel, labor and environmental compliance.

As a result, the 2000 Anjou pear return to growers sunk as low as $47 per bin, a severe cut from the $120 price needed for them to meet operational expenses. That figure falls far short of 1999 averages that netted producers about $120 per bin and even further from historical returns that were as high as $145 per bin in the mid-1990s.

Agricultural economists have figured that if the current revenue shortfalls continue, between 20-30 percent of the growers and one packinghouse could be out of business within the next two years. They believe the impact on Hood River's economy will be devastating since the industry makes up one-third of the local employment base.

Hukari said the financial plight shared by the two percent of the nation that grows its entire food supply cannot be ignored since it also poses a national security problem. For example, Hukari said once an orchard is removed the loss of fruit cannot be easily replaced, since it takes 10 years for a tree to mature enough for a decent yield. During that time she said the United States would be reliant upon the goodwill of its neighbors for its fruit supply.

"This is a wake-up call for consumers that the American farmer is in trouble," said Hukari.

She said concerned citizens can help by encouraging the U.S. Senate to pass the country of origin labeling that was approved by House members last fall. That provision would then become part of the U.S. Farm Bill and require that all fresh food items be clearly marked so that shoppers would have the option to buy "home-grown" products.

"In this global market buyers are looking for the cheapest price and don't realize that we only take home about six cents out of the 69 cent price charged in the supermarket for a pear," said Hukari. "We need the support of the American consumer to turn this thing around."

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