Editor’s note: A version of this story first published in the October issue of Wenatchee Valley Business World.
DRYDEN — Sitting on his porch and surrounded by pear trees, David Nierman recounts his family’s history in between sips of apple juice.
Nierman and his wife Doris have been growing D’Anjou and Bartlett pears in Dryden for four decades. Nierman’s parents, Esther and Fred, worked that same land when he was a kid — so did his grandparents before that.
This year, the family is celebrating its 100-year anniversary of farming in Dryden.
The agriculture industry in North Central Washington has changed a lot since Nierman took the reins in 1971. But his 32-acre family farm still represents the most common type of agriculture operation in NCW, according to a 2017 census released this spring by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In Chelan and Douglas counties, most farms fall into one of two sales categories: either they make more than $100,000 annually or barely break even. The majority of operations are also less than 50 acres and owned by families, according to the census.
The census is conducted once every five years and offers insight into dozens of farm characteristics across the country.
“The census is a program that’s been conducted since the 1800s and it’s been conducted here en masse since 1997,” said Jody McDaniel, chief of the USDA’s Environmental, Economics, and Demographics Branch. “It’s important because it’s one snapshot every five years that shows truly granular data down to the county level of what’s going on in agriculture.”
In Chelan County, 25% of farms had less than $2,500 in annual sales and 37% had more than $100,000. The rest fell in one of several categories in the middle.
And 70% of farms in Douglas County also fell into one of those two categories, according to the census.
“I think that’s something you can see across time and across the country,” McDaniel said. “You see a rise in small farms, you see collapsing in the middle sales category and you see either stabilization or a little growth in the larger sales category. It’s definitely prevalent across the data series.”
When it comes to average farm size, the two counties vary due to available land, crop type and irrigation practices. In Chelan County, 72% of farms are under 50 acres. There are only four operations that are larger than 1,000 acres, according to the census.
Only 41% of Douglas County farms are less than 50 acres and there are 185 larger than 1,000 acres, according to the census.
That disparity in average land size is also a common trend in the industry, said USDA regional director Chris Mertz, who oversees Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Oregon.
“We’re seeing growth in smaller operations and the bigger ones are getting bigger,” he said. “...That seems to be the trend with the state, the U.S. and the counties I’ve already looked at.”
There were 28% fewer acres of orchard in Chelan County in 2017 than 1997, but total industry profits increased 69.3% in that time. On average, an acre of orchard now returns $11,532 in sales, compared to $4,855 just 20 years ago, according to the data.
And while operations are becoming increasingly consolidated, most are still family-owned, according to the census.
In both Chelan and Douglas counties, about 84% of farming operations are owned by families or family-owned operations, rather than partnerships or non-family corporations.
The Nierman farm, which is in the Blue Star co-op, has been in that category for 100 years — and they hope to keep it that way. In 2013, David and Doris began leasing the pear orchard to their daughter Beth and her husband Tory Schmidt.
The road for a modern-day orchardist is not always easy, especially in the pear market, Beth said.
“There are some challenges with pears that make it a little tougher market-wise,” she said. “Pears need to be ripened … and it’s a little bit tough when you walk into the store and the shelf space for pears is a little bit smaller.”
The family’s operation costs continue to increase and returns are at a 10- to 15-year low, Tory said.
“The pear industry has some very difficult headwinds right now and we’re in a bit of a down cycle. So it’s a bit of a scramble for us at this point,” he said. “We like being able to carry on the family tradition and hope to continue to do that as long as possible, but it’s tough economically right now. So we’re hoping to stay in the game as long as possible.”