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A perfect storm of mishaps

An Oregon farm bankruptcy

Richard Blaine and his wife Sydney Blaine have run Avalon Orchards since 1974, growing apples, pears and cherries. He said the last five years have been a “perfect storm.”

It’s partly thanks to President Donald Trump that the Blaines have access to a kind of streamlined bankruptcy protection that’s meant to help family farmers reorganize and keep farming. But it’s partly thanks to the president’s trade wars that they need it.

The Blaines have been married for 52 years. He was a schoolteacher when they bought her grandfather’s farm in the Upper Hood River Valley. They learned by doing and over the years they expanded Avalon Orchards to five farms in Oregon and Washington. Rick Blaine and his wife are hands-on farmers.

“Mother Nature does almost all of it. But once in a while, if you bend a limb here or bend a limb there, and you do it often enough, the tree will produce lovely fruit,” he said.

“I love the harvest,” Sydney Blaine said. “I’m outdoors all day long and especially when the weather is gorgeous, it’s just a beautiful outdoor life.”

Their daughter Heather Blaine is Avalon Orchards’ general manager. She said watching her parents go through this perfect storm, culminating in Avalon’s bankruptcy, has made this the hardest year of her life. “I cannot even tell you how many tears have come out of my eyes,” Heather Blaine said. “And I wake up in the morning with stomach aches wondering how they are going to end their adventure in this livelihood we’ve had since 1974.”

Perfect storm
When experienced farmers like the Blaines file for bankruptcy, it’s seldom because one thing went wrong. It’s usually because they’ve weathered a series of blows, which now include tariffs. In fact, the Blaines’ account of their perfect storm shows just how tied Northwest apples are to the whims of geopolitics.

They say it all started in 2014, with an event thousands of miles away that changed the global flow of apples. After Russia seized and then annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Western nations imposed sanctions. Russia responded with a sweeping ban on imports from those countries, including apples. One of the affected countries, Poland, was a huge apple exporter and Russia was its biggest customer. Without access to Russia, European apples have been muscling into other markets where American fruit is also sold.

But the storm was just getting started. In November 2014, a severe freeze killed 50-60 acres of Avalon’s fruit trees and damaged many more. Rick Blaine said it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replant the trees, which would take years to fully produce.

Add to that a months-long labor conflict between dockworkers and shippers that bled into 2015 and turned some West Coast ports into parking lots. Washington growers export about a third of their apples, but the slowdown backed up the region’s entire apple supply chain. It cost producers dearly.

“In 2015 and ‘16, we started to recover,” Rick Blaine said.

Then, in 2018, President Trump imposed tariffs on imported steel and aluminum and the storm turned into a perfect storm. As the president’s trade wars escalated, the Blaines’ biggest export markets retaliated. No. 1 Mexico, no. 2 India, and no. 6 China all imposed or eventually raised tariffs on American apples. As foreign markets shrunk, those apples stayed in the U.S., depressing prices here.

“It’s so unnecessary and it’s destroying our livelihood,” said Sydney Blaine. “The tariffs are destroying the markets and they’re destroying them for a long time into the future.”

Even if countries later drop tariffs, as Mexico did, it takes time to rebuild those markets.

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