For the last two weeks, Jeff Herman has been sleeping in his orchard, in the back of a 1996 navy blue Chevy Sportvan, with his shotgun at his side.
His wife and business partner, Jeanette, sleeps 100 feet away down a gravel road, in a two-story home they built together in the mountains above Kettle Falls, Wash.
The Hermans are not fighting. Not one another, anyway. It’s October, and an early April frost depleted this season’s fruit supply — a hit to growers, and also now to the black bears sneaking in at night to feast on the fruits of the Hermans’ labor. One bear tore through a newly grafted Elstar — the variety that won the Hermans “Best Apple” honors at a West Seattle Farmers Market taste test last week. So while the rest of us are closing our windows to shut out autumn’s frigid overnight temperatures, Jeff makes for the van to wait for dawn or the bears, whichever comes first. He sleeps like a guard, ready to fire warning shots in the night.
This is his castle: Cliffside Orchard, seven organic acres of verdant, gently sloping hillside lined with neat rows of fruit trees. Some are heavy with apples and pears, in their prime. Some are willowy with ghosts of plums and apricots, whose seasons have already come to an end.
Another ending approaches: October marks the season finale of the Spokane Farmers Market, and a difficult time ahead for local farmers.
The market itself has had a good run, but the individual farms felt the weather. The crop at De Asis Farm & Produce was down 30 percent, and money wouldn’t stretch far enough for the family to hire help. Tolstoy Farms lost strawberries and its entire crop of apricots. “I was pretty worried for a while there,” says Joe Piver, who works at Tolstoy, recalling the rain’s toll on the farm’s harvest.
Cliffside, which relies on fruit, had it particularly bad.
“It was like everything that could go wrong did,” Jeanette Herman says. “The frost, the rain, brown rot — and just when you think it’s over, the bears.” Then she throws her head back and laughs as if the whole thing is a great joke. “What can you do?” she says, shaking her head. It’s the risk of working with the elements, and it pays to be optimistic.
Locally, the Hermans were on the forefront of the organic movement when they planted their first crop in 1982. “Back then,” Jeff says, “‘organic’ was like a taboo word. Now it’s an industry.” He sounds like a proud parent. Nearly 30 years later, the couple is weathered from the elements, their daughters are grown, their hair is a matching silver — and they still eat, breathe and sleep fruit.Jeff is on a ladder, engulfed in the leafy, fruit-laden canopy of a Bosc pear tree, when Jeanette pulls in from Seattle, where the Hermans sell at the U-District and West Seattle markets. (They’re also fruit vendors in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.) The weekly 12-hour drive has taken a toll on her hips over the years. She is exhausted. But once out of the van, she is immediately moving, scattering feed for the turkeys who’ve been cooped up all day, checking in with Cliffside’s farmhand, examining her garden. She marvels at the changes that have taken place in her absence — strawberries are ruby red; zucchini are mutant-sized; and, oh!, did you see the peanuts? — and notes what she’ll do differently next year.
This enthusiasm translates to sales, even in a slow season. Watch Jeff or Jeanette at market, and see an exchange that goes beyond economics: How’s your dad? Been building on your place? Your daughter feeling better? Hugs are exchanged. Handshakes. Dollar bills are pressed into palms like it means something. The Hermans credit their customers: “We love Spokane, love all our markets. They make this possible for us.”
was a challenging year. But “organic on the edge” is Cliffside’s motto —
the Hermans believe in nature’s cyclical bounty, erratic as it may be.
“I have the best job in the world,” Jeff says, looking out over the
expanse of the orchard. As for sleeping in the van? “Oh, please,”
Jeanette says, waving her hand like she’s swatting a fly. “He loves