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RAINBOW ORCHARD owners Jim McIver and Donna Rainboth get a lot of help from their daughter Sadie, center, and comic relief from Jasper, foreground, in helping people rent organic cherry trees. MIKE SHEARER photo
Instead of using Malathion on their 150-tree orchard, Jim McIver and Donna Rainboth apply a bacterium that only targets cherry fruit fly
COVE — The bare branches of the cherry trees at Rainbow Orchard betray no hint of the delightful blossoms that spring will eventually bring. And the delicious Lambert and Queen Anne cherries themselves are a good five months away.
But Donna Rainboth and Jim McIver are already lining up 2012 customers for their unique and popular rent-a-tree program, whereby those without an orchard in their own backyards can pay $50 and benefit from whatever harvest their assigned cherry tree at Rainbow Orchard has to offer late this summer.
The two professors say they are committed to both organic and locally grown food. And they say they delight in sharing not only the fruit of their orchard but also their commitment to those ideals with others.
“We’re not commercial,” said McIver, an entomologist and senior research associate professor for Oregon State University.
“And we’re the only orchard in the valley that we know of that’s organic,” said Rainboth, an education professor at Eastern Oregon University.
What “organic” means in cherry farming is avoidance of the ever-popular Malathion to control the cherry fruit flies. “Malathion kills everything,” said McIver.
Rainbow Orchard uses a much less toxic product, GF120, which is a bacterium that targets only the cherry fruit fly. GF120 does not kill, for instance, helpful honey bees.
McIver said they spray with the bacterium every two weeks June through July, a “regimented schedule required by the Cherry Fruit Commission.”
However GF120 is more expensive than Malathion, so Malathion continues to reign among commercial cherry orchardists.
Rainboth and McIver are what might be called reluctant orchardists. “We just moved next to a cherry orchard,” Rainboth said. When the orchard, half of which is very near their back door, came up for sale, they decided to buy it and make it organic.
“We didn’t want to be cherry orchardists,” Rainboth said, but they weren’t sure they wanted to trust unknown new owners to be as careful as the seller had been with spraying Malathion.
So they bought the orchard in 2007 and enjoyed their first crop in 2008, but they clearly didn’t personally need the bounty of fruit the 150 trees could produce.
They estimate they process 300 to 400 pounds of cherries a year. They dehydrate some, freeze some and juice some. They can cherries. They make cherry brandy.
“And we make chocolate-covered cherries,” Rainboth said, smiling at the thought. “We learned a way to pit them though leaving the stem on and then dipping them in chocolate.”
They also sell to individuals who sell cherries at farmers markets. “We sell to a seller at the Enterprise farmers market who buys 75 pounds each time,” Rainboth said.
But none of that makes much of a dent in what their orchard produces, so they also sell by the pound to those who want to pick their own cherries, but they are most enthusiastic about their flourishing rent-a-tree program.
When one rents a tree, a tree is labeled with its renter’s name. “Then we do all the maintenance,” said Rainboth. They take care of the watering, mowing and spraying. “And then we send them an email to let them know when it will be picking time.” The harvest is best usually over about a three-week period.
Renters use Rainbow Orchard ladders and buckets. Some come several times, have picnics, “make it a social event,” Rainboth said.
Others, particularly those from afar, come and clean the cherries off their trees all in one day. Rainboth says seldom are any cherries left behind on the trees that have been rented.
Everyone renting a tree understands the crop can vary year to year, but so far there hasn’t truly been a disappointing year. They estimate each tree bore more than 90 pounds of fruit last year.
McIver explained the trees “need a relatively warm spring for best production.
The cherry blossoms are on the trees about 25 days, so it’s best if the weather is good at least half of those days.” He said they noticed a considerable upsurge in production when their neighbor, Maureen Kelly, placed a new hive of honey bees near the orchard.
McIver is very proud of the cherries themselves above and beyond being a local and organic product. The orchard’s trees are 40 years old, and cherry trees may live 50 to 60 years. He said they are, therefore, losing about 5 percent of production a year. “But,” he added, “the newer cherry varieties are not as flavorful.” These classic Lamberts are “like a large Bing.”
Incidentally, he said, most grocery store cherries are picked green and ripen later and never as well as if they had been picked at their peak. He said the Lamberts should be dark, almost purple, rather than bright “cherry” red when eaten.
The thrill of the orchard for McIver and Rainboth is not the profits they make. “The money we make is just enough to keep up the orchard,” Rainboth said.
What is thrilling them, she said, is teaching people about buying locally, buying organic and giving people, who often don’t have the space for a garden or an orchard, the experience of participating in organic food production.
They are also very proud of hiring several local people. They hire a man originally from Mexico and who McIver said is a “real expert” at pruning. They also hire a neighbor who helps irrigate and several local boys who help mow and harvest.
The orchard is also a family affair. Their own daughter, Sadie, who will be a senior in the fall at La Grande High School, is their “primary mower.”
The orchard fits the spirit of one of their other endeavors. They head up the annual Cove Cherry Fair committee each year for the Cove Community Association.
When not busily working as full-time professors or part-time orchardists, the couple can frequently be found sporting Hawaiian-style shirts and performing hot music with the local Kupenga Marimba band.
Those interested in renting a cherry tree can call McIver at 541-910-0924 or visit their Facebook page “Rainbow Orchard-organic cherries in Cove, Oregon.”