TONASKET – Fourteen years ago, Aristeo Maldonado fulfilled his lifetime dream of owning an orchard when he bought 40 acres off of Highway 7 just north of Tonasket.
“I grew up in the fields of Mexico and here I fulfilled my dreams,” he said. “We had two options: we could go back to Mexico or stay in the United States. My wife and children preferred to stay here and go to college. Evelia, my wife, saw an ad in the paper and we found out the government was giving credit to new farmers. I went to the bank and got the warrant from the USDA and we bought the orchard.”
From those original 40 acres, the Maldonado orchard grew apple trees. It has now expanded 60 acres for cherry trees and 75 acres for pear trees and has branched into two orchards: Los Hermanos Maldonado and M&A Orchard II. On their land, the Maldonado family grows several varieties of apples: reds, goldens, ginger gold, honeycrisp, regular Fuji, early Fuji, gala and cameo. They also grow several varieties of pears: Anjou, golden, rosette, bosc, red Anjou and red Bartlett. Several varieties of cherries are also grown.
“We diversify because diversity is the key in this business,” Maldonado said. “We are trying to go with better apples and cherries and pears. We try to be ahead because if we don’t diversify, we will be out of business.”
Though he is now retired, Maldonado stays active within his orchard helping to maintain the trees, stating that he loves them. The orchards are run by his sons Rene, Victor, Hector and Ulises. Maldonado is the father of ten children in total, with seven sons and three daughters.
“If my children want to be orchardists, they start at the bottom,” he said. “I’m proud of my children because they’ve come back. Usually, children go to big cities and don’t come back. If you want to have good kids, the farm is the best place. You are not going to be rich, but you will be happy.”
Maldonado said the harvest has been a good one this year, since the mild summer did not cause much damage to the fruits. He said there was no sunburn to the fruits this year and no rain damage on the cherries, adding that the quality of the fruit is very good this year.
“The prices on cherries are very good and it looks like the prices on apples and pears will be good, too,” he said. “We farmers are the most optimistic people in the world. When we have a bad year, we say ‘next year’.”
A big change may be coming for the two orchards next year, Maldonado said, stating that he is in talks with Gold Digger in order to transfer the packaging of his fruit from Wenatchee to Oroville.
“We are thinking very seriously to send our fruits to Gold Digger to support more jobs in the area,” he said. “We are sending to Wenatchee right now, but we need more jobs here.”
With only about 200 bins of Fujis and cameos left to pick, the harvest is almost done for the Maldonado orchards, but work will be done on the land throughout the whole year.
“During the winter, we are going to cut trees and prune them,” Maldonado said. “We’ll cut some of the trees down to stumps and then cover them with a black plastic bag so the stump dies and then next year, we’ll pull the stumps out.”
His business skills were learned in sugar cane factories in Mexico, Maldonado said. He served as the head of operations at three different factories and it was there that he learned about planning, diversifying and about the use of chemicals. Also, after he and his wife bought the orchard, he said a man from Wenatchee came every week to teach them about how to grow trees and fruits and now the Maldonados are learning to use fewer chemicals and more beneficials.
“We are involved in the Integrate Pest Management program to reduce chemical use,” Maldonado said. “We are using fewer chemicals and our fruits have been very good.”
So good, in fact, that the orchards won Best Cherry Growers two years ago in Wenatchee, he added.
Along with his sons running the orchards, Maldonado said there are about eight permanent workers throughout the year, nearly 100 pickers during cherry season and between 18 and 20 pickers for the apple and pear season.
“It is good to take care of the workers,” he said. “If we treat our workers well, they will be back. If they are happy, they work better. We depend on the workers and the quality of the fruits.”
To keep his dream alive, Maldonado said he wishes for his sons to be more involved in the orchards, but added he wants all of his children to be happy.
“To be happy is the secret of life,” he said. “Don’t try to be rich, try to be happy.”