Ralph Yates is a champion of the apple industry. While the third generation grower quickly concedes that you won’t get rich in his line of work, he is also quick to cite his love for what he does. “Harvest is hard, a lot of grief,” he says, “but it’s worth it, and you can make a living doing something you love and enjoy.” Lacking in his response is the acrid tone some of us adopt when complaining of this and that. Instead, in Yates’ voice you hear a smile, a sense of pride in something his family has been doing for decades.
Fruit Acres, Inc., has been in business in Houston County—the southeastern-most county in Minnesota—for just over a hundred years, with the orchard celebrating its centennial in 2010. The Yates family and another local family have been involved for 70 years, with the Yates being partial owners and managing operations. The trick to sustaining the business, according to Yates, has been bringing on younger generations, loving what you do, always learning—particularly from your peers—and being involved in grower meetings.
The Yates family has certainly done its part in volunteering for the industry. Ralph has been the secretary of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association (MAGA) for 20 years. The organization is strictly volunteer but manages to host a well-attended winter conference and summer field day. Minnesota is known for its remarkable state fair, one of the biggest in the country. MAGA mans an apple booth in the horticulture wing for 12 days, along with related public relations. Another important function of the association is its integrated pest management (IPM) initiatives, such as scouting orchards and completing leaf analysis to help growers with disease control. These efforts help growers know what’s going on with insect and disease activity so they can quickly manage and contain problems with simpler solutions.
Yates’ father was likewise involved in apple industry leadership, serving as president of International Apple Institute (IAI), which is now U.S. Apple Association, in the mid-1970s. Yates senior was on the board of National Apple Institute, which eventually merged with International Apple Association to form IAI.
Consuming Yates’ days this busy fall season are picking, packing, harvesting, and marketing. But those tasks are in his blood, he says, and that’s something Yates concludes is almost a given in the apple industry. “It almost has to be in your blood for you to want to stay in it and for the younger generations to come into it,” he claims. Thankfully, agriculture roots do tend to run deep, which Yates reiterates is vital to sustaining the apple industry. His son Christopher is now assistant manager at Fruit Acres, generation four for the Yates family. In his lifetime, he will witness changes just like his dad, including the ebb and flow of public favor. The state favorite in the 70s and 80s was the Haralson Apple. Today it is the Honey Crisp. And, tomorrow…