Try Orion

Ambassador of Fruit

An Iranian pomologist transforms an Idaho landscape and helps its growers stay in business

by Alec Wilkinson

Published in the July/August 2009 issue of Orion magazine



Photo: Sylvia Plachy

SEPTEMBER 13, 2006, was Esmaeil Fallahi Day in Idaho. No one told Fallahi in order to surprise him. He spent the day digging holes and picking grapes and apples on his farm, and then he went to a party that he thought was being held for his birthday and was read the governor’s proclamation acknowledging his “career-long dedication to enhancing fruit crop production.”

Fallahi is a visionary pomologist, a fruit scientist, a species of practical rapturist whose reputation in tree fruits and stone fruits is international. Since 1989, he has lived in Parma, Idaho, west of Boise, where he is a professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Idaho and director of the university’s pomology program—his title is Tree Fruit and Small Fruit Physiologist. With the help of his wife, Bahar, he grows novelty fruits on fifty-nine acres of sloping land near a drive-in—at night he can see the movie from the fields. Under his guidance, farmers in Idaho have begun raising fruits that never grew in Idaho before. His ambition is that the farms around him will one day resemble the orchard he remembers from his grandfather’s ranch in the mountains north of Tehran.

Fallahi is fifty-four, with black hair and brown eyes, a broad, flat nose, and a square jaw. When he arrived in Parma, the high desert land and the climate brought his homeplace to mind—“mountainous, very cold in the winter, and a beautiful spring,” he says. Despite having thousands of acres of orchards, the territory produced nothing like the diversity of fruit that his grandfather had, even though his ranch was only several hundred acres. Potatoes are Idaho’s dominant crop. Onions come after them, and apples after onions. The fruit farmers in Idaho relied heavily on apples, and on only a few kinds—Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Rome, a variety used mostly in juices. In addition, some of them grew plums and peaches. Fallahi thought, Am I missing something? Why are they not growing more fruits? “Then I answered myself,” he says. “What are the chances these growers have been to Iran and seen what they can grow?”

From attending international fruit conferences in the late 1980s, he was aware that China was growing more and more of the kinds of apples that America grew, with the intention of overtaking the world market and flooding the American one. Fallahi felt that Idaho growers needed to protect themselves. He suggested they raise Fuji apples, a valuable Japanese variety that was being grown in Washington State but not in Idaho. The farmers said that America’s hegemony was invincible. Furthermore, they said, Idaho was too cold for Fuji.

To refute them politely, Fallahi planted Fuji apples at his farm at the university in 1990. They had more flavor than the types the growers raised, and they were more robust, so they took storage better. A few growers began planting them.

The last year that America grew the world’s most apples was 1993. China has grown the most ever since, and its advantage is insurmountable. By 1999, the Chinese were delivering so many Red Delicious apples to America, and charging so little for them, that growers in Idaho began tearing out their orchards. They sold the trees for firewood, or burned them in the fields in conflagrations that looked like pyres. Many growers planted Fuji, while others sought to diversify their farms even further.

On Fallahi’s grandfather’s ranch, there was a waterfall, and beside it a few rows of grapes were twined around the trunks of poplar trees. When his grandfather was elsewhere on the ranch, Fallahi would climb the poplar trees and eat the grapes. “In Idaho, I start asking myself this question that makes everyone think this Persian guy is crazy,” he says. “I think, This is the same climate. Why don’t they grow table grapes here?” The fruit farmers said, “Too cold.”

“I asked, ‘What is the chance of cold?’ They say, ‘Once every ten years we get very bad cold, and Snake River freezes.’ Okay, the whole agriculture is gamble, particularly fruit. You have the danger of frost and freeze, but you have the danger of not having enough cold as well. With peaches if you don’t get enough cold, your fruit becomes pointed, like bullet—call it sheep-nose peach. I tell them what they know: during the winter, tree fruits need enough chilling hours—between thirty-eight and forty-two degrees—to satisfy their need for dormancy. Then they need gradual spring to set a good fruit, and summer of warm days and cool nights to grow it. Cool nights concentrate sugar, which makes flavor. Also, in late summer, as cooler nights get longer, the trees and vines add color to their fruit, which makes them more desirable. So we have all the best features for growing grapes, and if chance of cold is one out of ten years we are as risky as anywhere else.”

The farmers remained unpersuaded, so Fallahi planted his own grapes, twenty-six varieties in all, also in 1990. “For my own heart, for my own curiosity,” he says. “I was coming to see them Saturdays late, training them, talking to them, babysitting them.” Nowhere in his budget was there money to stake the vines properly, so they grew crooked. Each area of his farm is identified as a block. Fallahi calls his original grape block Orphan Block. Observing his results, a few growers planted vineyards on their empty apple land. “These were the grandfathers that were tired of paying for things that don’t make money,” he said.

A big potato farm in Idaho might have five hundred acres of potatoes (the farm itself would be larger but a portion of any farm, typically 20 to 25 percent, lies fallow each year). A big onion farm is a hundred to two hundred acres, and a big fruit farm might have eighty to a hundred acres—although the two largest, which specialize in apples and also have peaches, are close to a thousand. One hundred and forty-nine growers in Idaho raise apples on 5,705 acres, approximately nine square miles. Currently, forty-three growers plant about six hundred acres, nearly a square mile, with table grapes (there were zero acres of them before Fallahi arrived), the bulk of which find their market within the state, or in the Pacific Northwest. To reliably supply supermarket chains and stores such as Wal-Mart, Fallahi figures three thousand acres are necessary.

The most widely grown variety is Alborz. Working with breeders in Idaho, Fallahi developed Alborz, which he named for a group of mountains in northern Iran. It is a slight variation, called a sport, of a California variety called Flame—Alborz is more tolerant of cold than Flame is. The other 15 percent of the acreage is accounted for mainly by Emerald, which was developed in California but isn’t grown there; Jupiter, which was developed at the University of Arkansas; and an Australian grape called Ralli, also called Annahita, which Fallahi named for his daughter. When a fruit is in its trial stage, it receives a name. Ralli was called Annahita for its trial and, in Idaho anyway, the name stuck. Among the grapes Fallahi grows are two, Medi Hani and Bidonet, which he brought as cuttings from Iran in 2004, then had certified by the USDA to be free of disease, but no one else can grow them until he releases them. They will be the first fruits this century to be introduced from Iran. Bidonet is seedless. To make grapes grow larger, farmers spray them to make them retain water, but Medi Hani grows large naturally.

If Fallahi can establish grapes widely in Idaho, he has in mind other, more novel fruits to advocate, the bulk of which thrive in Iran. “White-flesh peaches and pear of kings,” he says. “Certain nectarines. White apricot. It grows only in eastern region of Iran, almost on the border of Afghanistan. Different types of berries—honeysuckle, a small berry in Iran which is different plant from here; zoghal akhteh, which is size of a small grape. There is a bush between gooseberry, blueberry, and cherry, if you can visualize. Another called medlar, which is from the Pome family. And a sour cherry called albalo, which has more flavor than the sour cherry here; it makes an excellent juice and eats fresh. Also definitely pomegranates. If you go north in Iran to Caspian Sea, there are forests of pomegranates, pears, and plums. Thousands of these fruits are sold by the roadside; the sellers hold them toward you as you pass. On the southern shore of the Caspian Sea are cold regions, as cold as Idaho, where pistachios grow. What I am thinking is that if I can bring them here I wouldn’t be surprised to see them thrive—almond, too.”

Idaho fruit farmers have a high regard for Fallahi as a scientist. They take his advice on what to plant, when to water, how to fertilize, when to spray and which sprays to use, whether chemical or organic, how to thin, and when to harvest. “There isn’t anyone else like Essie in Idaho agriculture,” Steve Bair, the president of the Idaho Horticultural Society, says (the growers call Fallahi Essie). “If he wants to try something, we give him the trees because it’s him behind it.” At Fallahi’s suggestion, some growers have planted dwarf trees, as Fallahi’s grandfather did. Dwarf trees bear fruit in three years, rather than the four or five that larger trees require; they have smaller root systems, so they need less water; more can be planted in an orchard, since they take up less room; and they tend to produce dense concentrations of fruit. In addition, the fruit they bear can be harvested from the ground, which means fewer farmhands falling from ladders, and that the fruit itself is less likely to be bruised in being picked. Jerry Henggeler, whose family is the second-largest fruit grower in Idaho, told me, “When we see Essie talk up a program, we know it will be reliable. We have confidence.”

FALLAHI’S MOST ARDENT COLLABORATOR is an elderly farmer named Ron Mann, who lives in Payette, near the Oregon border. On sixteen acres, Mann raises 110 varieties of fruits, among which forty are innovative. He farms organically and sells most of what he grows to health-food stores and at farmers’ markets. His most successful fruit is a grape called Sweet Shelley, whose flavor is as emphatic as a berry’s. Mann took up farming in retirement. Before that, he worked as an executive at Boeing and for President Reagan in the White House. He moved to Idaho to develop new flowers. “I wanted to take the daisy and give it a scent,” he told me. “The daisy has a pungent odor, and I wanted to convert that. All I could find for land, though, was orchards, and that slowed me down—I had to make a living growing fruit.”

Mann and his wife, coincidentally named Shelley, live surrounded by crop rows that appear to converge at their house, as if holding it hostage. Their front yard is a vineyard. Fallahi drove us into the backyard, where Mann, who is tall, white-haired, and wiry, held a screen door open. In his other hand he had a pamphlet about sea buckthorn. “It’s a thorny plant that’s grown wild in northern Iran and is used to separate borders on hedgerows,” he said. His voice was soft and raspy. “The fruits are loaded with vitamin C.” Fallahi said that as a boy he was stuck in the knee by a sea buckthorn, and he raised his pant leg to show us the scar. “Nobody in the U.S. has an orchard of sea buckthorn,” Mann continued. “I’m the first. You extract the juice and mix it with apple juice, and it’s the healthiest juice we know of.” He handed me the pamphlet, then led us through the kitchen, where we said hello to Shelley, a tall, dignified woman wearing a red dress (it was Sunday and I assumed she had worn it to church), and into the living room, which had a picture window that looked out on rows of grapes.

Mann deplored the decline in apple farming caused by the Chinese. “The tomato industry, the strawberry industry are disappearing, too,” he said. “Because of Essie, we’re looking for things that can keep a farmer alive. My topsoil is nine feet deep. There isn’t a rock out there. It’s good soil—you can grow anything.” Fallahi said this was true.

“What we’re trying to do, Essie and I, is we’re determined that we’re going to build the industry back up with alternative fruits.”

Mann then led us out the back door. There were blue hills in the distance, and clouds above them. He pointed to a row of trees. “That’s a new red walnut from Essie,” he said. “The meat’s red. I’ve got a block of those, about twelve trees. I’ve got a new filbert nut that’s this big”—with his thumb and his index finger he made a circle about the size of a golf ball.

Walking stiffly, like a marionette, Mann led us to the edge of a field that was thickly planted with bushes. “My sea buckthorns,” he said. Fallahi took a knife from his pocket and cut stalks of rhubarb from a patch beside us. He stepped backward into a row that appeared to be empty. “That’s just been planted,” Mann said, and Fallahi jumped and spread his feet, like a child playing hopscotch.

A rooster crowed. Mann picked up a shovel that was leaning against a shed and dug some dirt. He cupped some with his palm and smelled it. A disk of it clung to the end of his nose, like flour. He held it forward for me to smell. “It just smells good, doesn’t it?” he said. I agreed that it did.

ALONG INTERSTATE 84 in western Idaho, Fallahi’s influence is abundant in the form of vineyards, and it is diverting to sit beside him as they pass and think that if he hadn’t come to Idaho and if Idaho hadn’t reminded him of Iran, there wouldn’t be vineyards there at all. It is not unusual for an innovative crop to take hold in a region because one farmer tries it and has success and the others imitate him. What is unusual is for someone to have a vision of what a landscape might foster and for that vision to be both radical and subversive and then to insinuate it into the collective imagination and watch it begin to take hold.

Another fruit that Fallahi hopes to spread from his farm is Asian pear, a round pear, grown in Iran, whose appearance will also alter the landscape because its blossoms are white, like apples, but a white so insistent that it is almost shiny. A third fruit he is ambitious for is quince, which also has a white blossom, but one that is almost twice as big as the apple blossom.

Fallahi goes to Iran about once a year, usually to visit university agronomy programs. He wishes he could bring back more cuttings, but the state of relations between the countries makes any agricultural exchange of material very complicated. The only other cutting he has been able to bring to America is a walnut called a paper shell walnut, which he brought in 2000, and which has a shell so thin that it can be cracked by a person’s fingers. Mostly Fallahi gets stock from crop geneticists and nurseries around the world.

On the outskirts of Parma, Fallahi has a lab that he built from two mobile homes he bought in Boise with a passage to connect them. The lab is bordered by thirty-five species of rose, which Fallahi tends. Each fruit that Fallahi grows, he and Bahar test for flavor, starch, sugar, size, and minerals. Some of the implements they use are sophisticated, and some are ones that Fallahi built, because the available machines were too expensive. In one case, he built, from cheap gun parts, a gauge to test the force necessary to separate a fruit from its stalk, which helps decide the best moment to harvest; a ready-made gauge would have cost nearly a thousand dollars.

About half a mile from the lab, past a sign that says PARMA ROD & GUN CLUB, is a gate and a sign that says UNIVERSITY OF IDAHO POMOLOGY PROGRAM. Beyond the gate lie seventy-nine acres of research ground for potatoes and onions, tended by other scientists (the university has fourteen positions in potatoes; Fallahi’s is the only one in fruit), and eighty-five acres for fruit, twenty-six of which lie fallow at the moment. On them, among other fruits, Fallahi grows currently eighty-two kinds of grapes, seventy-six species of peaches, ten varieties of quince, ten persimmons, eight Asian pears, six apples, four figs, three mulberries, two jujubes, two walnuts, and one version of pomegranate. No other farm in America replicates Iran as emphatically as this one.

I drove from his office to the farm with Fallahi one day in his pickup truck, and we bumped over a cattle grate and along a gravel and packed dirt road before stopping beside a row of peach trees. Each tree was about ten feet tall and had been pruned severely, so that two arms grew from its trunk, giving the tree the shape of a V. A row of them looked like a row of slingshots. The topmost branches met with the branches of the rows beside them. “This design gives a much higher density per acre,” Fallahi said. “And most light penetration through the canopy, which gives a larger, redder fruit.”

Fallahi got out of the truck. Spreading his hands, he said, “Come harvest time, with such a system, I am not looking at a tree but at walls of fruit.” Little black flies buzzed around us and landed on the pages of my notebook. The hillsides were green, and the ravines were brown. We walked down the road, scuffing pebbles and raising dust. Fallahi called out the names of crops. “This is pluot,” he said. “Combination of plum and apricot. They call it dinosaur egg. I have fourteen trees. We need to replicate enough material to be statistically reliable, which usually is twelve to fourteen trees. A typical trial is six or seven years, to see how it grows and what is the quality of fruit for Idaho soil and climate. Some we have twelve years. This group we started in 2000. When we’re done, we’ll take out most of the trees to make room for new trials, but leave some for growers to see on field days, which is when we open the farm for anyone who wants to come and see what we’re growing. This is different varieties of quince, which is the apple family. These are about nine feet and mature—we planted them in 1999. The trial is done—these are for demonstration. A lot of backyard growers are raising quince, but the commercial-scale growers, they’re still looking at it, like most of these fruits. These trees are pistachio, from Iran. These are about four feet—they were planted last year—but they’ll reach about fourteen. And these are persimmon. These are mature, about eight or ten feet. They grow fast—we planted them three years ago. It’s unheard of to have persimmon in Idaho, because it’s colder than its typical range. In China, in Iran, persimmon makes wonderful jam and jelly. If I had to pick one exotic fruit that I think will succeed in America, I think it is persimmon.”

We came to another orderly row of trees. “This is snow giant peach, which they love in the Oriental market,” Fallahi said. “It has a white flesh. I have about two acres, altogether nine hundred trees. I need that many for all the different trials. A fruit like peach, with so much importance in the market, we do more trials than for more experimental fruits. We’re doing blossom-thinning experiments, crop-load adjustment—how many branches we need to leave per tree to get best-quality fruit and optimum yield. We planted them in 2000, and I think we’re done next year. This is jujube, which is from the same family as the tree that it is believed Christ was crucified on. In Iran it gets very small, but here I get fruits the size of a small apple, very sweet.” We came to some trees with bands of white paint on the trunks. “To protect from sunburn,” Fallahi said. “For young trees until they develop shade. Otherwise, they crack.” He stopped by some mulberry trees, about fifteen feet tall. “They grow to about forty, but we try to keep them to eighteen,” he said. “We planted them in 2000.” In the trees were magpies, black and white and the size of crows. I could see one staring at me through the leaves. “For grapes we put nets over the vines, but otherwise we share with the birds,” Fallahi said. At the next block, he told me, “This is paper shell walnut that you can crack with the tip of your finger. I brought this from Iran myself. I have twelve trees, planted in 1999. We have just in the last two years started getting fruit—we call nuts fruit. We’ll keep them several more years, because they take longer to mature.” Grasshoppers scattered at our feet. Beside a row of tin cylinders about six inches tall, from which the tops of some plants were sticking out, Fallahi said, “Pomegranates, just planted.”

Facing us then was a vineyard with twisted vines. “This is Orphan Block,” he continued. “My original block of grapes. I worked on this block for twelve years. You see the gnarled trunks going zigzag.”

We walked back to the truck. It was just after noon. On the way out of the orchard, Fallahi stopped by the rows of peach trees. He said that sometimes he wished that he grew only wheat. “Wheat you have one planting, three months to raise it, and that is it,” he said. “With fruit, you worry about gopher in the winter, mouse damage under the snow. During bloom time, you’re worried about freeze-frost damage. Your worry after that is hail, then sun damage. In the fall, if your nights are warm, you pray for cooler nights, to get better color. Then you are just praying that your October frost doesn’t come early. On top of that, people buy fruit with their eyes. They are demanding a perfect-looking fruit, and that is a problem for all growers, because the only way to do it is to spray, which is expensive. When I see these apples or peaches in the fall, though, I forget everything. The summer when you are chasing labor—do you get enough workers? Being tense about everything in research, writing, and the funding—what if next year they cut the beautiful experiment I have? I can’t tell a vine or a tree, ‘Excuse me, can you stop growing one season, because federal doesn’t have money to give me.’”

We drove slowly past the rows of peaches, as if reviewing troops. “In eighteen years of work, I’ve taken zero years of vacation, zero sick leave, and no annual leave whatsoever,” Fallahi said. “There are hours that I go in the orchard in the sunny day or in the evening and hear the bees, and that’s like music to me. I have written for myself in Farsi about description of season and flowers, and how light goes through the yellow and red clusters of grapes and plums, and how the sun is leaving for the day in the fall.”

A pickup truck passed us, trailing a plume of dust, and Fallahi waved to the driver. “We can go eat something now,” he said.

FALLAHI’S MOTHER HAD HOPED he would be a doctor. A widow, she had brought up nine children, and Fallahi was reluctant to disappoint her. He left for college in Tehran in 1968 to study medicine. At the end of each of his first three years, he secretly took the exam to enter agriculture school and was admitted. Fallahi says that he will never forget the look that his mother gave him when he told her that he was finally resolved to study fruit. “In Persian, the word for horticulture, the immediate impression is that you are carrying a shovel on your shoulders like an old dirt farmer,” he says. “How can I explain to my relatives that my son is going to be a dirt farmer after all this education?” she asked. Slowly, she relented. He started college again, studying agronomy, in 1972. His thesis, which described three hundred varieties of Iranian apples and two hundred pears, is still accepted as definitive.

When Fallahi graduated from college, a single position was available for a student from Iran to study for a master’s degree in pomology in America. Fallahi scored highest on the national exam. He received invitations from Cornell, the University of California at Davis, and Washington State University; he chose Washington State, in Pullman, because the university would also accept his wife.

Fallahi was pleased that the streets in Pullman were not as crowded as those in Tehran, and that he no longer needed “ten thousand signatures on documents to do anything.” The informality in America was complicated for him, though. “Three months, even four months after I arrive, I was calling my adviser ‘Mr. Dr. Larsen,’” Fallahi told me. “Formality in Iran is extremely respected. I would not call you by your name; I would call Mister, or Engineer, or Excellency, or whatever you have as title. But here Dr. Larsen was Fenton. They kept telling me, ‘Don’t say Mr. Dr. Larsen,’ but I couldn’t stop. It seemed impolite.”

To attend classes in English, Fallahi had to learn to read from left to right. He took notes in Farsi and in English, and translated his textbooks, line by line, into Farsi. “For every one hour, I was studying four,” he said. In 1979, having been accepted as a doctoral candidate at Cornell, Michigan State, the University of California at Davis, and Oregon State, Fallahi chose Oregon, “because Dr. Mel Westwood, who wrote the bible of pomology, Temperate-Zone Pomology, taught there.” Fallahi finished his doctorate as the Iranian Revolution commenced. He had always assumed that he would go back and forth between work and research in Iran and America, but after the revolution, he said, “everybody in the U.S. was considered to be an outsider.” From then on, he began telling people that he was from Persia, hoping that they wouldn’t know it was Iran.

After Fallahi completed his doctorate, in 1985, he worked briefly in Oregon and Washington before going to the University of Arizona, where he worked mostly on citrus and on strains of peaches adapted to grow in the desert. Arizona was too hot for his liking, and in 1989 he and his wife moved to Idaho with their two children, Annahita, who is twenty-two and doing bio-medical research at New York University, and Arzhang, who is twenty-six and studying medicine at the University of Washington.

THE GRAPE FARMER in Idaho tends to be someone who has never farmed before. To show me a representative vineyard, Fallahi drove me to Emmet, about half an hour from Parma, to see one that belonged to a man named Mike Medes.

Until a few years ago, Medes had sold real estate in Boise with a partner, then he sold the partner his half of the business. His neighbor in Emmet owned an apple orchard that he hadn’t watered properly; all the trees had died. He offered Medes the orchard. Medes is sixty-one, and he grew up in Minnesota. He bought the orchard and began looking for something to do with it. Through the state agricultural extension service, he took “chicken classes and beef classes,” he says, but felt nothing for either animal. From another farmer Medes heard that Fallahi was giving a fruit-growing presentation, so he thought, Maybe I’ll go fruit. At the presentation, Fallahi showed a slide of himself holding two clusters of grapes, “like trophies,” Medes said, and he decided to have an organic table-grape vineyard.

Medes’s vineyard, the Rocky Fence Vineyard, occupies the lower range of a hillside. A light rain began to fall as we arrived. Fallahi drove slowly along the rows and, before long, we saw Medes at the far end of a row, on a tractor that was towing a trailer with a horizontal propane tank about the size of a water heater on it. By each wheel of the trailer, a pipe extended like a tailpipe toward the ground, and at the end of each pipe was a flame; the flame singes the tips of the weeds, which shocks the plant sufficiently such that it dies. Medes waved to Fallahi and stopped when he reached us. He was thin, with an oval face, red hair, wire-rimmed glasses. He greeted Fallahi as “Professor Doctor.” Then he asked how to prune the vines. While Fallahi went to his truck to retrieve a pair of clippers, Medes said, “He’s gone over this with me before, but I want to hear it to reassure me. After three years of investment, you really don’t want to do the wrong thing.” Fallahi walked down one of the rows and began quickly snipping off clusters, letting them fall to the ground. Medes winced. “It’s like cutting dollar bills from your vines,” he said. “It’s not for the timid.”

Fallahi advanced down the row, and Medes followed him. By the time they returned, the rain was falling harder. There were little drops of water on Fallahi’s glasses. Another pickup truck arrived, driven by a farmer named Greg Bogle. Fallahi had asked Bogle to join us. His vineyard was about forty-five minutes away, in Weiser. Bogle is in his early thirties, tall and thin, with a round face. He and Medes had never met. Bogle asked if Medes had sunk all the poles at the ends of his trellises by himself, and Medes said that his son had driven about two thousand of them. Then we decided to get out of the rain.

Medes left his muddy shoes at the back door to his house. “To keep the floors clean,” he said.

“It’s not that you pray five times a day?” Fallahi asked, taking off his shoes.

“Don’t most people who farm pray five times a day?” Bogle asked.

In the kitchen, we sat at a long table that had a tablecloth on it. “This is a big year for me,” Medes said. “Year five. Curtain time. Showtime.”

Fallahi and Bogle nodded.

“Three years of learning. If I was a good farmer, I could have made money my fourth year,” Medes added.

Bogle said that he was in his second year at his new vineyard. Before that, he had had a vineyard near Boise, which produced for two years, and before that he and his wife had owned a pizza parlor.

“I just jumped into it,” Medes said. “I figured I had enough savings for three years, then I ran out of money, so my wife is working—she’s at the elderly agency in Emmet.”

Then Medes said he was having trouble with bugs.

“You need to get some chickens in your vineyard,” Bogle said. “They eat bugs like mad.”

“Leaf hoppers is what I have,” Medes said.

“You get a little bandy chicken, they can go through hundreds and hundreds a day,” Bogle said.

“Well, you know, I’m a graduate from chicken class,” Medes said. “I went to chicken school.”

“You need poultry,” Bogle said.

A typical vineyard is dirt and vines. I hadn’t seen any with chickens in them, so I asked Bogle if I could see his. The next day, Fallahi and I drove northwest from Parma to Weiser. In addition to passing vineyards whose owners Fallahi advised, we passed plastic-flower shrines for car wrecks; fields of mint you could smell (“For Colgate toothpaste,” Fallahi said); torn-up fields where Fallahi said simply, “Red Delicious”; a sign for Psycho’s Salvage; and a field of sheep with a llama. Then Fallahi took a road to the top of a mesa and drove along it, passing farms until, after a few miles, we came to Bogle’s farm on a broad piece of flat land.

Bogle was in his yard by a fence that enclosed about sixty chickens and two geese. The ground in the pen was hard and bare, and there was a depression filled with water, like a wading pool. Two dogs hung around him. I asked how he’d got the idea to use chickens.

“It started because we wanted to have a cover crop,” he said. “The old way of thinking is you want to keep your weeds out, because they compete with your plants for nutrients. But weeds help your water stay underground, according to studies I read. You get a higher yield; plus, you water less often, so you save money. We started looking at wouldn’t it be nice to put something in there that would eat that cover crop down. Goats will do it, but goats are aggressive as to what they want to get at. They’ll mark off things and defend them.”

“So you got chickens?” I asked.

“Sheep,” Bogle said. “We’ll do orchard grass for a cover crop, then run sheep in the vineyard, an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. The lambs eat your orchard grass, and at the end of the year they go to auction, so you only have to support a certain number over the winter.”

“And the chickens?”

“They eat grubs and bugs,” Bogle said. “Cutworms and earwigs and those little spidery-looking things that get up on your grapes—I don’t know what they’re called.”

“Thrips?” Fallahi said.

“Maybe,” Bogle said. “The other big issue for us is deer,” he continued. “They prefer the leaves, but they’ll rip the grapes and tear them up. Elk, same thing. You might not think there’d be a lot of elk here, but there are tons,” Bogle said, turning to scan the horizon. “We listen to them bugling in the winter. Coyote is the other problem.”

“They eat the chickens?” I asked.

“And the sheep,” Bogle said. “Plus they’ll eat grapes. You wouldn’t think they would, but coyotes love grapes—they’ll cherry-pick your grapes right out of your vineyard.”

“Anything take care of that?”

“Pomeranian dogs,” Bogle said. “They’re hell on coyotes.”

“Pomeranians? The little fluffy toy dogs?”

“Did I say Pomeranians?” he asked. “I meant Great Pyrenees.”

“The big white ones.”

“Exactly,” he said. “I’ll put a couple of those in, and with them, I’ll have a couple of geese as noisy alarms. What the dogs miss, they’ll pick up. The geese will also protect the chickens from the dogs.”

“I didn’t know they’d do that,” I said.

“When they’re raised with them, they will,” Bogle said. “They take on that protector’s sense—the way guys with sheep, they’ll stick a llama in the field, because they help protect your sheep. You annoy a llama and not only will it spit at you—it’ll stomp you.”

Fallahi and I got in his truck then and followed Bogle’s truck to his vineyard. His plants were young and low to the ground, and most of them were enclosed by white cones about six inches tall. The cones are called grow tubes. Bogle said he needed them because many of his neighbors raise wheat, and the chemicals sprayed on wheat poison grapes. “If the chemicals drift, the tubes will protect the grapes,” Bogle said. “These people have been growing wheat here for years, and I don’t feel I can come in as a new neighbor and say, ‘Stop spraying, you’re interfering with my vineyard.’”

Fallahi said he thought that Bogle’s vines might need water. He got down on his knees and dug a few inches into the ground, filling his palms with powdery soil. Bogle took a wrench from his truck bed and walked across the farm road to his irrigation fixture and gave it a few turns. Streams of water began to issue from poles above the vineyard. “What I envision is vineyards spread out all over here,” he said to Fallahi when he returned. “How beautiful would that be?”

From Bogle’s vineyard, Fallahi and I drove around the countryside looking at fruit ranches where Fallahi’s presence could be seen in the fields planted with dwarf trees or with crops that Fallahi had suggested. We drove for miles along two-lane blacktop roads, and the only people we passed were driving tractors.

Fallahi lamented that there were no fruits ready to taste. “You must come back in the fall,” he said. It seemed almost to pain him that he couldn’t share with me his pleasure in the harvest.

We drove up into orchards belonging to the largest fruit grower in Idaho. Fallahi pointed at some hazy hills in the distance and said they were Oregon. At the top of a hill, the grower had a grass-strip runway for his plane. The landing strip was surrounded by cherry trees. Beneath many of them were propane fruit cannons firing to frighten the birds off the cherries. The cannons made a sound like a small-town fireworks display. Fallahi said that the birds appeared to have grown accustomed to them. They seemed to anticipate the blast and to rise from the tree just before the cannon went off and to settle just after. From the hilltop, you could guess, now and then, which cannon was about to fire by a mist of black forms, like pepper grains, rising from a tree. While I was watching for them, Fallahi walked into the orchard. A moment later, he came back, extending a hand toward me, making me think of the fruit sellers he had mentioned by the roadside in Iran. His palm was filled with cherries, and he was smiling.

“I found an early variety for you,” he said. “Chelan, instead of our regular Bing.” We ate the cherries and listened to the cannons firing. 

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Alec Wilkinson's ninth book, The Protest Singer, about Pete Seeger, was published in April 2009. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

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