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'Frontier spirit' still alive in Northwest apple orchards

An industry as American as apple-growing looks to markets across the Pacific and in the Middle East to keep it prospering. ''We [the apple-growing industry] sell 3 million to 4 million bushels of apples a year to Taiwan,'' said Francis Crane, owner and operator with his two sons of the independent apple-growing company, Crane and Crane.

His Washington apples are grown to be eaten (they are not cooking apples). Big, succulent, and glossy red, they grace tables not only across the United States, but also in the air-conditioned homes of desert sheikhs, in the many-splendored high-rise apartments of Hong Kong, in the cozy sloping-roofed Korean dwellings that still survive in the shadow of Seoul's towering new office complexes.

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From the terrace of his ridge-hugging home overlooking the majestic sweep of the Columbia River, Mr. Crane looks out on acre upon acre of green orchard. The harvest of ripening red and gold fruit will begin in late summer.

From mid-August, when pear picking begins, to mid-November, when the last of the apples is harvested, Crane and his sons are at their busiest. Peter, the older son, is the production man, also looking after the older orchards. Barclay , the younger son, takes care of the packing process and new orchards with young trees. Their father looks after marketing.

Husky Barclay Crane, showing a visitor around more than 400 acres of carefully tended orchard, is upset that Japan permits no apples to be imported, whereas it does import American citrus fruit under a quota system. The Cranes do get some cherries into Japan, again under a strict quota.

''We think the customer should be allowed to choose what apple he wants to buy,'' says Barclay. Red Delicious is the mainstay of the Crane orchards, but Granny Smiths are gaining favor. The Cranes also grow Red Bartlett pears and are even experimenting with Japanese Nijusseiki apple-like hard pears and softer Chinese Yali and Snowflake pears.

The Chinese pears were the gift of Dr. Shen Tsuin, who was a classmate of Crane's at Cornell University in the 1930s and who is now professor of pomology at Peking Agricultural University. Crane has a interest in things Chinese, having visited the country twice in the last few years. He is a member of the Washington State China Relations Council, which supports and promotes people-to-people ties between China and the State of Washington.

Crane has taken trainees from France, South Africa, and Japan on his farm. So far he has had just one Chinese helper, but he hopes for more. The 440-acre farm is prosperous now, but like many of his fellow-farmers, Crane has known hard times. The farm was started by his grandfather in 1911, who fell in love with the Columbia River and brought his wife from their perfectly comfortable home in Spokane, Wash., to live in a riverside tent until their farmhouse was completed.

Crane's father expanded the farm, but fell on hard times during the Great Depression and finally lost his holdings when the bank foreclosed its mortgage. Crane started up the farm once more after returning from Navy service during World War II. He started with 27 acres bought back from the bank and gradually built up his acreage to the present 440.

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''The foundation of this industry is quality,'' says Barclay Crane. ''Therefore the small man can always compete.'' Across the river, he said, was a man with 25 acres who put six sons through college. He was frugal, used just one tractor, and did most everything himself. He belonged to a packing cooperative, whereas the Cranes do all their own packing.

''The frontier spirit is still alive here,'' Barclay said. It is pounded out of two elements: hard work and ''an adventurous approach to life.'' Barclay himself had hoped to go to medical school after finishing his undergraduate work in Arizona. He returned one summer to help out his father and brother. At the end of the summer, he was asked to stay on.

''I've never regretted it,'' he said.

Takashi Oka, based in Peking, recently traveled through the United States doing research for a coming Monitor series on US-China-Japan relations.

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