In August of 2005, a 1,143-acre orchard parcel in Benton County was purchased for the Common School Trust for $6.8 million. The state school trust lands are managed to provide revenue to help build public kindergarten through high schools statewide. The purchase was to replace trust lands that had been auctioned or transferred, and is done to keep the trust ‘whole’.
DNR’s decision to purchase this property was based upon its location in the Paterson area, lying east of Highway 221 across from Columbia Crest Winery, with a growing season of more than180 days, productive soils, highway access, and irrigation water supplied through the South Slope Irrigation Association from the Columbia River. The parcel was offered for lease at public auction in the fall of 2006. The successful bidder was the Zirkle Fruit Company, which farms throughout the Columbia Basin from Wenatchee down to Paterson. Zirkle grows apples, blueberries, cherries, and pears, which are packed and sold through Rainier Fruit Company, along with wine grape acreage contracted with Ste Michelle Wine Estates.
In 2007, Zirkle Fruit planted more than 440 acres of the lease to 51 blocks of fruit. These plantings were focused on varieties they saw as having favorable markets at the retail level. Over the past five years this parcel has been transformed from older apple varieties and densities to a mix of newer plantings of apples, blueberries, cherries, and wine grapes.
Some acreage has been planted to the Lady Alice apple, a proprietary variety controlled by Rainier Fruit Company. The Lady Alice apple was discovered as a chance seedling in Washington State and is therefore a “Washington Original.” The variety is expected to have favorable consumer response in the marketplace due to its distinctive taste, and its dense flesh is sweet with a hint of tartness.