LA GRANDE - Roy Hamilton is sure apples can be big business here.

"I know we can grow them," said Hamilton, chair of Oregon State University's Union County Extension Service office. "We're just waiting for the right investor to show up."

Hamilton grew up on a Washington apple orchard and wants to see profitable apple production in northeastern Oregon. Starting four years ago, he and several Union County farmers tested 23 different varieties to see which could be profitable in this part of Oregon, where the favorite crops have been wheat, grass seed, potatoes and mint.

"Apples could be a terrific alternative crop," Hamilton said. "Several varieties grow very well here. What we need, though, is enough apples to justify storage and packing facility."

Hamilton said "enough" would be 1,500 acres. The cost of establishing an orchard runs $10,000 to $15,000 an acre.

"The best apple land (in the Grande Ronde Valley) is in the foothills, not on the valley floor," Hamilton said. "Foothills land is inexpensive now, but once it's developed for orchards it would be worth more than the land in the valley."

Hamilton said three landowners have cooperated with him in apple testing projects with good success.

Longest cooperators are Lawrence "Doc" and Mickey Savage, whose east-facing orchards about five miles north of La Grande have been the site of apple test plots for four years. Their orchard has 23 different varieties in 33 plots. Each plot contains 12 trees.

Involved with the project for three years have been Rick and Michelle Misener, near Cove, where 12 different varieties are being tested in 16 plots on their west-facing site.

The third cooperators are Mark and Mike Johnson, whose orchard near Summerville is a south-facing site. "We are growing only four varieties there, but 400 trees of each," Hamilton said. "We're especially looking at the commercial packout data."

The project is funded with a $6,000 grant from the Northeast Oregon Alliance, the economic development entity that disperses lottery funds in Wallowa, Union and Umatilla counties.

Tests at the three sites have convinced Hamilton that there are at least five apple varieties Grande Ronde Valley residents can produce that will have consistent good quality for domestic and export markets.

The apples of his eye are: Golden Delicious, Earligolds, MacIntosh, Jonagolds, and Honeycrisp.

Hamilton said Golden Delicious is a good fresh-market apple; Earligolds are good for sauce and pies; MacIntosh, for eating and pies; Jonagolds, good fresh-market apple with long-term storage capabilities, and Honeycrisp, "one of the most flavorful, under-marketed apples."

Some of the varieties that would not work well in the La Grande-area trials are Fuji, Granny Smith and Braeburn. "Our growing season is too short for them," Hamilton said.

The 24 different varieties being tested are on a combination of rootstocks. The result is a mix of dwarf and semi-dwarf trees.

"Early on, the dwarf trees have better fruit set than the semi-dwarfs," Hamilton said. "But then the semi-dwarfs catch up and exceed the dwarfs in production. The type of variety you use depends on whether you want to get early returns or want to focus on the long run."

Cooperating with Hamilton in the study of the apples are Tom Darnell of Milton-Freewater, Umatilla County tree fruit extension agent, and Clark Seavert, an OSU Extension Service agricultural economist for Hood River and Wasco counties.

Trees for the project were donated by C and O Nursery and Van Well Nursery, both of Wenatchee, Wash., and Willow Drive Nursery of Ephrata, Wash.

"Our climatic conditions in the Grande Ronde Valley are closer to those in north-central Washington than they are to the Willamette valley in Oregon," Hamilton said.

"Another reason I was able to get the Washington nurseries to cooperate in the project," he added, "is because I grew up on an orchard between Brewster and Okanagan, just north of Wenatchee, and have worked with the nurseries for years."

Hamilton's primary job with the Union County extension office is as 4-H agent. The apple project comes under his administrative role as staff chair in which he is encouraged to do projects that would enhance community development.

Adding a new, profitable industry to the area would qualify. And, as far as Hamilton is concerned, apples have a good shot at being that industry.

"I'm sure commercial apple production is viable here," he said.

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Roy Hamilton, 541-963-1010