Hans Groenke grew up near Chicago, IL, and started learning the farming trade in Montana on a seven-acre family cherry orchard.
In 1981, he established his own commercial orchard in Mattawa, WA, transforming 80 acres of rocky, sagebrush-covered land in the Columbia River Basin into Bigfork Orchards – now a flourishing source of tasty, high-quality fruits enjoyed by Town & Country Markets’ customers. The first fruits were harvested in 1985 and since then the operation has only grown.
Known predominately for the cherries that are grown on 140 of its current 450 acres, Bigfork also produces 10 acres of pears, five acres of apricots and 295 acres of apple trees. The warm summer days, cool nights and the rain shadow granted by the mountain range are the perfect conditions for growing exceptional cherries.
Hans takes measures few other cherry growers do to ensure that the best eating cherries get to market. First he allows them to ripen to a deep, dark red before harvesting. He handpicks his cherries to ensure the quality of future crops as the buds for following year’s fruit are already forming when the cherries are harvested. Then his cherries are quickly chilled with ice-cold water and travel to the packing house in refrigerated trucks.
He says the key to his success has been working with companies with good marketing, but mostly it’s the high quality of his fruit. He says without the excellent quality there would be nothing for companies to market.
Hans’ children began helping with the harvest at about 10 or 11 years of age, and his two sons are deeply involved with the family business. His oldest son, Hans Jr., has taken on the day-to-day operation of the harvesting. And Hans’ youngest son, Case, claims he can eat 100,000 cherries in a single day.
The cherry harvest is the best time of year for Hans. He says he likes it because every day and every year is different. It is always a bit of a gamble, but he enjoys the thrill of it all. And he says wouldn’t trade anything for the rural lifestyle of working as a farmer.