by Sally Colby

When Julie and Bill Michener arrived in Grandview, WA, in 1994, they partnered with a grower who was seeking help with her commercial cherry and apple orchard. Two years later, the Micheners bought into the business and continued growing for the commercial market for several years. Despite increasing to 70 acres, they soon realized the orchard wasn’t profitable because it was too small to compete with others of its kind.

The Micheners purchased a portion of the farm and dubbed it Bill’s Berry Farm. Although the section they bought was originally in grapes, they switched to blueberries with the purpose of augmenting the commercial orchard. “At the last minute, while we were waiting for plants, we decided to try U-pick,” said Julie. “We thought it might be more profitable for us to control. With tree fruit, we had no control over the price or the market, and payment is a year or more later.” With payment so far out, they were constantly starting the next growing cycle and investing money only to realize they weren’t making any profit. By the time they were paid for apples, the crops were already winter pruned and sprayed in spring, and the family realized there wasn’t enough to cover expenses.

That realization came in 2009, which is when the Micheners started Bill’s Berry Farm with their first blueberry crop. They’ve since ceased commercial orchard sales other than some cannery cherries. “Now we have all U-pick and have transitioned the entire farm to a lot of different crops, including strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, plums, apricots and pears,” said Julie. “We’ve downsized the growing acreage because we can’t do U-pick on 70 acres, and we’re concentrating on a variety of crops so we can stay open from May to October.”

As the Micheners waited for their newly established crops to grow, they spent a year traveling, visiting other U-pick farms to find out what they offered and to get a better idea of what they wanted to do. “We wanted to be a farm, not an entertainment, so people could learn about farming,” said Julie. “While we were waiting, we changed our initial blueberry order from all one variety to several varieties so we’d have a longer season.”

Since they had plenty of apples, the Micheners decided to host an apple festival in fall. Guests who visited were happy with the pumpkins and a selection of apples, but many asked about lunch. The next winter, the Micheners purchased a house on adjoining property and converted it to an office and a commercial kitchen.

The next year, the Micheners decided to host an antique show and a blueberry festival, and quickly found that if they had a festival, free advertising was readily available. Referring to their events as a festival or jamboree put them on a number of event calendars including online, newspapers and TV, because those outlets want to make it news and provide people with the best options.

“Years later, when we added strawberries, we had U-pick strawberries for two summers,” said Julie. “The third summer, we decided to call it Strawberry Jamboree and we tripled our attendance. We offered the exact same thing every Saturday – doughnuts, the playground, our animal farm and hayrides.”

Julie and Bill Michener have evolved their orchards over the years, from commercial cherry and apple to myriad U-pick options. Photo courtesy of Bill’s Berry Farm

When the blueberries were mature and reliably bearing, the Micheners hosted a Blueberry Festival. “It was one weekend. We had a band and did antique shows,” said Julie. “We found out people didn’t really want antiques but we were picked out of blueberries in one hour. We had 1,200 people show up – it was our first big event.”

The next year the Micheners added Cherry Days, and started pulling out apples in favor of establishing peaches and some apricots, nectarines and pears. With 15 peach varieties in the ground, fresh peaches would be available from July 4 to mid-September.

Customers loved the Micheners’ Sweet as a Peach Days, held on two weekends in August. But when they realized people were only coming on festival weekends thinking that was the time to come for blueberries, it was time to figure out how to entice guests to pick blueberries over the four- to six-week long blueberry season – and pick cherries too.

“Now we have cherry and berry days every weekend for four weekends,” said Julie. “Strawberry Jamboree is every weekend for four weekends, and Sweet as a Peach is held on three weekends. The Apple Festival is every Saturday through the month of September, and the Pumpkin Festival in October. It keeps us on all the calendars and Chamber of Commerce news in the area. We’ve added more since then, and focus on healthy food.”

Although weekend festivals drew people to the farm, people wanted to come only on Saturdays. “We had ripe strawberries on Tuesday and cherries withering by Wednesday,” Julie said. “We built up our festival name, which put our name out well in the early days, and now we put an emphasis on everyday U-pick. I can manage U-pick with one staff member who can serve everyone. It’s more profitable and we need people mid-week to keep the fruit fresh.”

The Micheners grow everything as biologically and naturally as possible, with a focus on good flavor. “The varieties we’ve chosen are not based on what commercial growers produce, they’re based on what consumers want,” said Julie. “We’ve sought out varieties to fill that bill. We have customers who are loyal because they know they can’t get a peach or cherry that good at the grocery store.”

When consumers purchase blueberries at the grocery store, they’re simply purchasing blueberries. “Having people know the names of the varieties is helpful,” she said. “People get hooked on them and will come back for those.” Cameo apples are also popular among customers who return every year for them. She added, however, that one difficult aspect of the orchard business is people changing their preferences.

A popular autumn activity is a squeeze your own apple cider event. Although the farm doesn’t have a full-fledged cider operation, the Micheners scaled down their own family apple pressing party and offered it to visitors. Customers purchase apples, sign a waiver stating that they understand it’s a raw product, then can use the press. The activity has become a tradition for many families.

“Part of our mission statement is our faith-based view of the world,” said Julie. “We want our farm to be wholesome and family-centered, and part of the success for that is bringing people to the farm so they can experience it.”

Over the years, they’ve picked and chosen what fits the farm’s mission statement. “It has helped to have it written down and clear and gave us focus from the beginning,” she said. “We have a big emphasis on school tours to get kids out here and experience the farm.” As an experienced homeschooler, Julie designs lesson plans for school tours and enjoys seeing young people become excited about farming.

The Micheners strive to make farm visits interesting for both students and parents. “Sometimes we’ll have a class with 18 kids and 32 adults,” said Julie. “They love to come to the farm. Because such a high number of adults come, I make sure the information is entertaining and educational for moms and dads too.” The farm didn’t close during COVID-19, and while a core group continued to visit, some public schools opted out. The farm normally hosts 3,500 students, with about half that number last year, but school groups are now starting to return.

Julie said the added bonus of being adult-centered along with programs to suit young people is that many of the adults will return for U-pick. “If I can educate them about the food we’re growing – the seasons, varieties and how we’re growing – they will come back because they have a connection with us,” she said. “We’re building relationships and giving them knowledge and education so they can come back and support our business.”

Since the Micheners started farming, more farms have popped up in the area, including many commercial but also some consumer-oriented operations. Julie said there’s no competition because each one is different. “People like different things and need to have choices,” she said. “There’s plenty of people for all of us, and we need to not be afraid of other farms and businesses in our area. Our instincts would be to think a new farm will steal customers, but if we’re doing a good job and our customers like us, they’re going to keep coming back. We see it as a positive thing.”