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For former planner, family orchard a step towards saving farms

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Former city of Wenatchee planning official Monica Libbey walks through her parents’ orchard pruning suckers on Honey Crisp apple trees. She quit her city job this spring to begin taking over the orchard operation and become a fifth-generation fruit farmer.

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WENATCHEE — When Monica Libbey graduated from college, she knew two things for certain: she didn’t want to work as a city planner and she did not want to become an orchardist like her dad. Or her grandfather. Or her great-grandfather. Or her great-great grandfather.

What she wanted to do was find ways to save farms in her hometown of Manson from being pushed out by more vacation homes and to preserve the agriculture heritage that her family is so deeply rooted in.

Seven years after leaving college, the 30-year-old is starting to believe that the best way to save orcharding — and her family’s place in it — is by getting her hands dirty.

So she quit her job as Wenatchee’s planning manager this spring to work with her dad in the family orchard in the hills overlooking Lake Chelan.

Dressed in an oversized T-shirt, muddied jeans and a baseball cap pulled low over her pony-tailed hair, Libbey took a break from tying up new apple trees on a rainy day last week to talk about becoming the fifth generation of her family to farm fruit. Her dad joined her at the table.

As she talked, her hands were folded over a copy of “The Stehekin We Remember,” a book her grandmother and two great aunts wrote about their lives growing up on the Buckner Orchard. The 50-acre orchard near the headwaters of Lake Chelan is now a national historic district owned by the National Park Service. With an interpretive center, farm buildings dating back to the 1890s, a hand-dug irrigation canal, and trees that are still being harvested each year, it offers visitors a glimpse of pioneer farm life. “As I’ve matured, I’ve learned how special my life has really been with the history of my family,” she said. “I’ve come to the realization that if I really want my heritage preserved, who else is going to do it but me?”

Libbey has known orcharding her whole life. She’s known it through the orchards her dad has leased, owned and operated. She’s known it through the first-hand stories her grandma told her. And she’s grown up with stories about her pioneering great-great grandfather who started it all.

A little over a century ago, William “Van” Buckner was traveling from California to Alaska when he stopped off to visit his brother in Stehekin at the head of Lake Chelan. He ended up buying some property, moving his family there and planting the Buckner Orchard.

He built a wooden irrigation canal to carry water to his trees. A section of that original canal is now at the Libbey orchard and may be made into a decorative water feature some day.

One of Van Buckner’s sons continued operating the orchard and married into the Field family. One of their three daughters is Libbey’s grandma, Hobbie Morehead.

Hobbie married an orchardist in Manson, as did her daughter, Christy — Monica’s mom. But Monica and her four sisters all pursued careers other than orcharding. While Monica became a planner, her sisters are an accountant, an elementary school principal, a radio newscaster and a school lunch supervisor.

They grew up playing in the Manson orchard, riding on the four-wheeler with their dad while he changed water, and occasionally helping out when needed. Monica said her first summer job as a teenager was working for her dad.

After the summer was over, she was convinced that it wasn’t a life for her.

Living here my whole life, I was really feeling like I didn’t want to do that,” she said. “I thought it was really boring and I didn’t want to work for my dad.”

So through the rest of high school she spent her summers working at a fast food restaurant and then a bakery. While in college she worked on trail crews for the U.S. Forest Service.

During those impressionable years when I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, we were in a pretty bad cycle in orcharding,” she said. “We were losing money and it was pretty hard for my parents. My dad had to get other jobs to get by.”

I distinctly remember at one point my dad telling me not to become an orchardist,” she added.

She knew she wanted to work outside in an environmental field. So she got a degree in environmental policy and planning. And although she didn’t want to become a city planner, she needed an internship to graduate and the city of Wenatchee — which was close enough to live at home — was hiring a six-month planning intern.

A few months into the internship, she was offered a full-time job and took it.

Libbey said that as she pursued a career in planning, she continued to be tugged by an interest in preserving family farms. She had been watching for years as orchards were torn out and replaced by subdivisions of vacation homes.

It made me sad,” she said.

She worked her way up to housing and community planner and then planning manager. But while she was living at her parents’ home on their farm, she was reading up on small-scale farming and direct-to-consumer marketing of farm produce.

I was intrigued. I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said.

She pitched in around the orchard when needed, and eventually started thinking about doing it full time. She said the clincher came during apple harvest last year. Something clicked, and she talked to her mom about it. Word got back to her dad “and it finally sunk in with him that I might be serious,” she added.

That got her 61-year-old dad, Rocky, thinking about things he hadn’t done in more than 30 years of orcharding. Things like taking vacations during the warm months of the year and going fishing whenever he felt like it.

Monica left her city job in March to give it a try. After working her first full day in the orchard, she just dropped into bed at 10 p.m. when her dad called and said, “Time to go to work.” The frost alarm had gone off and she spent the whole night helping to keep an eye on the wind machine and checking sprinklers.

Monica said what she envisioned going to work for her dad was easing into the business, learning the ropes as she watched him run the show. Her dad had different ideas.

He said the best way to learn something is by doing it,” she said, smiling.

So she immediately took over the irrigation duties, donning a yellow rain slicker and riding the four-wheeler around to turn the valves on and off, checking to make sure the sprinklers are working, and cleaning or repairing sprinkler heads and pipes.

Over the last three months, she has also taken over the bookkeeping, payroll, taxes, accounting, bill paying, spray records and food-safety compliance.

He’s pushing for me to take on more and more responsibility every day,” Monica said. “He’s already talking about taking trips. And he’s planned a hunting trip in 2014 during the harvest. He told me, ‘That’s how much confidence I have in you.’”

This month, he gave her full control of the two and a half acres of newly planted Gala apple trees.

Laughing, she said he also gave her a list of other orchardists and field men in the area to call for advice.

But he’s still close by, overseeing the operation of the rest of the 60 acres of apple, pear and cherry trees they own or lease near the top of Winesap Avenue.

It’s exciting and a little scary,” she said. “I definitely feel like I don’t know anything.”

I’m always asking him ‘Why. Why do we do it this way?’” Monica said of her dad.

To that, Rocky said, “And I’m always saying, ‘Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

She said the mechanical side of the business is what scares her the most. Her dad has rebuilt and repaired the wind machine and often fixes tractors, sprayers and other equipment when it breaks down. So far, she’s learned to take apart sprinklers and unclog hoses.

The rest she’ll learn along the way, her dad said. She’ll learn from her dad just like he learned from his.

So far, Monica said she’s enjoying her decision to leave a good office job. She likes working outside, and the challenges of the job. She starts her day early with a big breakfast (as opposed to the big cup of coffee that started her planning-work days) and needs regular snacks through the day to keep her going.

Even driving the tractor makes me hungry,” she said, laughing. “It’s not like sitting in the office all day.”

The pressures of the job are also different. “It’s a never-ending workload. But it’s still going to be there tomorrow if you don’t get something done today.”

And speaking of work, Monica still had a few rows of new Gala trees to tie to trellises. As she and her dad headed back to work, they pulled on their matching work shoes.

For most parents in the business, this what they really want,” he said. “It’s fun having someone who’s always thinking ahead, who sees the whole picture. She’ll have her way of doing things, and some of them might even be better than the way I do them.”