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My first experience in apple packing and changes in the Washington apple industry

By on June 22, 2020 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
Jim Loudon: A life among apples.

By Jim Loudon

My first real exposure to growing and packing apples was in 1943 when I was around 14 years old. 

My folks rented the old Charlie Campbell place, located in the Methow Valley about three miles south of Carlton, that included about four-and-one-half acres of younger Red and Golden Delicious apples. 

Dad, who had experience packing apples, decided to pack the apples ourselves and save some money. He located a four-foot long rag wiper that was a wood cylinder about six inches in diameter with rags protruding out, maybe four to five inches, the length of the cylinder and powered to turn by an electric motor to remove residue, including spray, from the apples. 

Dad built a little ramp about three feet by three feet reduced to eight inches wide to feed the rag wiper. He then built a padded bin four by four by two foot to receive the apples from the wiper. 

This is where Dad would size and pack the apples. He would normally pack about 100 boxes a day depending on apple sizes, quality, etc. 

My mother would sort out the culls where the apples came off the wiper into the bin. 

Among my duties was dumping the apples into the wiper and stamping the required information on the box. 

The lidding apparatus was a foot operated press that I would place the packed box of apples and lid on and squeeze the lid snugly to the top of the box and nail four nails in each end of the lid to secure the lid to the box. 

I also would stamp the variety, grade and size on the packed box. 

The sizes in each packed box were a mystery to me, so my Dad wrote the sizes and the pattern visible on the top layer on an empty box side for my assistance. 

For example, a top layer showing two apples wide, then three apples wide by two rows of five apples and three rows of four apples lengthwise equals 22 apples per layer; with four layers in that box equal to 88 apples or size 88. 

When we accumulated 264 packed boxes, we would load them on a truck and ship them to Wenatchee. 

Packing about 1,500 packed boxes in the orchard by our family was a somewhat unusual practice for the time. Most apples in 1943 were trucked to larger packing houses that had mechanical apple sizers and packed there. 

However, packing apples without major mechanical packing equipment, at the orchard site, was a common practice in early years of commercial apple growing in Washington State. 

 Looking back in history, one obvious change in the Washington apple industry would be in the apple varieties. 

Apple varieties in the 1920s and ’30s included Winter Bananas, Stayman, Arkansas Black, Spitzenburg, Ben Davis, Winesap, Common Delicious, Jonathan, Rome Beauty and others. 

Current varieties have changed completely with many new varieties developed and being grown commercially. Today, Red Delicious (34 percent), Gala (19 percent), Fuji (13 percent), Granny Smith (12 percent), Golden Delicious (10 percent), together total about 88 percent of Washington apples shipped.

Today’s orchards are larger with the typical orchard 20 to 100 acres and several orchards over 1,000 acres. 

With the development of controlled root stock, trees can be grown smaller and planted much closer together. Trees were larger in the 1920s and ’30s, typically nearly 15 feet high when mature. 

Thinning and picking was accomplished mostly from a 10 or 12 foot wooden orchard ladder. Trees per acre varied from 50-100 trees. Today’s trees are usually smaller, with trees planted much closer, ranging from 100-1000 and more per acre.

In earlier days spraying the trees was accomplished with a sprayer and hose and human operated hand nozzle. The sprayer, consisted of a tank (typically 200 gallon wooden tank with metal bindings), and a pump and motor mounted on wheels, pulled by a team of horses or a tractor. 

Today, spraying is done mostly with a mechanical sprayer pulled through the orchard by a tractor. Today growers endeavor to minimize spraying by practicing integrated pest management. 

In the fall, apples were picked into a wooden apple box constructed from pre-cut finished pine or fir lumber, called shook, and were nailed together at the orchard site during the summer. Apple boxes were used to pick the apples into at harvest and reused to pack the apples into for marketing. 

The majority of the apples were picked from a ladder and placed into a picking bag or bucket holding approximately an apple box full, and hauled out of the orchard on a stone boat or wagon. 

Most apples were originally packed near the orchard site and cleaned by hand wiping, but soon were cleaned by a machine with rotating rags or brushes to remove the residue. 

Apples were then sized, initially by the packer and later by some type of sizing machine. The apples were then individually wrapped in 10-12 inch square paper and placed into the previously picked-in wooden apple box with a given number of apples in the box depending on the size of the apples, the larger the apple, the fewer total apples in the box. 

Sizing had to be quite accurate as the boxes were normally required to weigh 42 pounds of apples in the box. If much more than 44 pounds of apples were packed into the apple box, the apples would be bruised in nailing on the box lid. 

The lidded box was stacked on its side as the fullness of the box resulted in a bulge or crown where the lid was nailed on. A registered individual box label was pasted on the box prior to shipment. 

The attractive box label would normally have information of the shipper’s name, content in the box, and an artistic design as each packer or shipper would have at least one personal apple label. 

There were hundreds of different Washington State apple box labels and today they are a collector’s item. Today, the label is printed on the fiber carton by the carton manufacturer. 

Apples are now picked into reusable wooden or plastic bins holding about 800-900 pounds of apples and handled by mechanical means. 

The bins are hauled to the packing house and placed into refrigerated or controlled atmosphere storage. Eventually, they are taken out of storage and packaged mostly into fiber cartons with apples nested into four or five molded trays in a carton with a net weight of about 40 pounds. 

A smaller percentage of apples are packaged into three to five pound polyethylene bags or smaller molded apple trays. 

Today packing and shipping Washington apples is highly mechanical, including sorting and packaging the apples. In larger modern packing operations human hands do not touch the individual apples.

Jim Loudon is a 90-year-old former fruit co-op manager and orchardist living in Wenatchee.

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