A Sense of Place
Bounty on the bluff
by Tonie Fitzgerald | © Washington State University
The small farming community of Green Bluff lies nestled in the foothills of Mt. Spokane. Its bucolic setting belies the fact that it's just 15 miles north of Spokane. Take a meandering drive around "the Bluff," and you'll pass by dozens of family farms, each with its own roadside fruit stand. Stop at any one for fresh fruit and locally made jam, wine, cider, pie, and other harvest bounty.
Green Bluff has been a production area for fruit, berries, and vegetables since the early 1900s. Back then, farmers could ship their produce from a nearby rail station to customers clear back in Eastern cities. Many a Green Bluff Wagner apple found its way to Chicago into the hands of German immigrants who were particularly fond of the Wagner variety.
Ironically, in today's world of instant communication, overnight airfreight, and state-of-the-art refrigeration technology, most of Green Bluff's bounty is now sold on the farm at roadside stands or U-pick operations. Because growers on the bluff are unable to compete on the wholesale market with large-scale fruit orchards, they have embraced "agri-tourism" to sell their fruit.
The road from early 20th-century agriculture to 21st-century agri-tourism is as winding as the two-lane road that skirts the bluff. Ron Andrews ('76 Hort.) knows both those roads like the back of his own hand. Ron is a third-generation farmer on Green Bluff.
His grandfather, Lee Andrews, moved to Green Bluff in the 1930s. There he raised apples and strawberries and reared three sons. Some of his McIntosh apple trees still stand on land close to where grandson Ron farms today.
As a child, "Ronnie" attended the little brick two-room elementary school still in the center of the Green Bluff community. Although it now serves as an annex to a church, Ron remembers when life revolved around it and the grange and the Green Bluff store.
"Green Bluff is still a tight community," he says, "but it was even more so then. It was strictly a farming community. Some people had other jobs at Kaiser [Aluminum Plant] or in town, but most only farmed."
Ron's father, Lloyd Andrews ('42 Ag. Ed.), farmed on the bluff full time, until an interest in and talent for politics landed him in the state senate and later won him a term as superintendent of public schools. Lloyd also was chairman of the WSU Foundation board from 1988 to 1990.
Ron attended Mead High School and earned his first college degree in economics from Whitworth College. He then served in Vietnam as an army helicopter pilot. In 1972 he married Charla Mae ('75 M.S. Psych.) and took out his first lease on more land in Green Bluff.
"I made money that first year . . . unfortunately." Ron laughs the way farmers do when they talk about choosing a life that would forever be at the mercy of bad weather and economic downturns. Since then, he has weathered all the storms a farmer faces, including the year that controversy over the use of the product Alar caused apple prices to plummet.
"That ripped the heart out of small farming communities," he says. "At that time, in the early 1980s, Green Bluff growers were selling some fruit locally, but it was pretty low key. A lot of people just had 'ring doorbell' signs at their places. Most of their income came from the fruit they shipped wholesale to commercial packing houses in central Washington. When that market fell away, Green Bluff had to re-focus."
And re-focus they did. A look at the Green Bluff growers Website shows one event after another, from Mother's Day through Christmas aimed at bringing lots of customers to the bluff, often. Check out festivities at Blooms on the Bluff, Strawberry Celebration, Cherry Pickers Trot, and Apple Festival, to name a few. All season long, Green Bluff growers promise farm tours and breathtaking views, not to mention fresh fruit right off the tree, to families who are several generations removed from the farm. School buses discharge loads of kids to experience Ag in the Classroom activities. Carloads of parents, kids, and grandparents come to pick fruit and eat homemade pie while listening to bluegrass or country bands.
These lively festival weekends are a far cry from the days when Ron's grandfather picked his own apples and sent them by train to far-away customers. Land-use issues and commuter traffic are new challenges for the Green Bluff community, but not ones that can't be met. The biggest challenge, Ron thinks, is getting young people interested in farming. His own son, Garrett, will graduate in 2006 in forestry. But Garrett won't have a tile in the corner of the Alumni Center where his grandfather Lloyd '42, uncle Frederick '63, father Ron '76, mother Charla Mae '75, and cousins Christopher '89 and Brooke '90 have theirs. Garrett chose to be a University of Idaho Vandal.
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