Pipitone Farm facts
Who: Jerry and Andrea Pipitone, owners of Pipitone Farms
ROCK ISLAND — Jerry Pipitone has grown his own veggies since he was 8 years old. But it wasn’t until he was in his late 30s and harvesting 200 pounds of garlic from his backyard garden that he realized, “Holy cow, I’m a farmer.”
Now, decades later, the 72-year-old self-described “back-to-the-lander” has cultivated Pipitone Farms into one of the largest and most popular organic operations in the region.
In the last 35 years, the farm’s fruit and vegetable crop loads have increased steadily using intensive organic farming techniques, while wholesale production of farm-made, fruit-and-veggie products has boomed to supply 30 stores, fruits stands and markets across the Northwest.
“I don’t have much time now to even tend my own garden,” he laughed. “It goes to weeds before I know it.”
That’s because he’s busy. On just 5 acres tucked north of town, he grows (literally) tons of soft fruit — apricots, nectarines, prunes and 11 varieties of peaches — along with the tomatoes, chilis, onions, savories and other vegetables to produce annually more than 20,000 jars of spreads, syrups, salsas and sauces under the farm’s Rock Island Red brand.
In peak season, the eight-employee operation slices and pits about 1,200 pounds of soft fruit every two days, dries it in tunnel-like dehydrators and packs it for resale in resealable air-tight pouches. During rare slack times, the Pipitone crew dries fruit for other local organic farms.
Pipitone himself hits the road through much of the season to gain new customers and restock outlets. “I’m driving thousands of miles and meeting scores of people,” he said. “But that’s what I love to do — talk to people about organic farming and the value of having good food in your diet.”
Pipitone is proud of selling fruit and products that are 95-percent cultivated on his Rock Island farm. “It gives us the control to make sure what we sell is the highest quality,” he said. “And that it tastes good.”
Established in 1978 in East Wenatchee, Pipitone Farms evolved into “your basic organic fruit and vegetable farm,” said Pipitone. “Everything picked fresh and sold not long after — so customers had the best fruit and veggies possible,” he said. “It was successful up to a point.”
In 2000, Pipitone’s wife and business partner, Andrea, devised a strategy to take the farm in a new direction: food products made from Pipitone produce. She oversaw construction of a commercial kitchen, hired staff and pulled together recipes for specialties such as plum syrup, hot pepper spread, Sicilian garlic spread and salsa verde. Kitchen crews began drying and packaging apricots, peaches, prunes, tomatoes and crushed cayenne peppers.
The farming couple also developed Yums, a low-sugar jam made of fresh fruit that was destined to become one of their most succcessful products.
By legal definition, jams have about 65-percent sugar, explained Jerry Pipitone. “Because we’ve cut the sugar down to about half that, sometimes less, we thought we should call it something other than jam. ‘Yums’ were born.”
Yums made from apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums account for about 40 percent of the farm’s sales of Rock Island Red products. “Customers really love them,” said Pipitone.
In January 2012, Pipitone Farms dropped the majority of its fresh fruit sales to concentrate on wholesale marketing of its food products. The shift kicked Pipitone himself into high-gear as salesman, a role he loves, and sent him traveling as a marketer of Rock Island Red products and an evangelist of organically-grown food.
But his travels, Pipitone explained, really began 50 years ago. He grew up on the beaches of Alki Point near Seattle where he became “soaked in a love of the sea,” he said. That led him to decades of work on tug- and towboats, much of it in the rough waters of Alaska, where he logged much of his 14 years of sea time. Yes, that’s actual time of boots on a deck.
Since then, Pipitone helped co-found the Wenatchee Valley Farmers Market and has helped mentor other successful organic farmers in the area. “Oh yes,” he said. “I’m full of good advice.”
When young, Pipitone fell in love with Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the book that, arguably, launched the American environmental movement. It led Pipitone down the path of organics — “knowing how we grow our food, knowing what’s in our food” — and still energizes him today. He’s an avid campaigner for state Initiative 522, which calls for labeling of genetically modified foods, and talks with gusto on the subject to local groups and, he chuckled, “anybody who’ll listen to an old fella gab.”
Pipitone stood under two 50-year-old Riland apricot trees, which were developed as a variety at a nearby farm (the “Ri” in Riland stands for Rock Island). Each tree produces 3,000 pounds of apricots per year.
“These trees are the perfect examples of how well organics can work,” said Pipitone. “No chemicals. Natural bug control. And exceptional producers — hundreds of buckets of fruit most years.”
He looks up into one tree’s branches. “Really,” he said. “It’s a thing of beauty.”