It took a big decision in 1964 that went against conventional wisdom for Sandy Lawrence to choose the Royal Slope to lay down his roots as a farmer. The magnitude of this decision has been discussed many times and appreciated many more. With as much as Sandy and his brother John accomplished as farmers, none of these successes outweighs the initial decision.
As Sandy and his father Hervey traveled through the Columbia Basin looking at different areas, the final focus came down to the Royal Slope or Ephrata. The ground in Ephrata was ready-made for a successful start in farming, while the Royal Slope had broke farmers prior and was far from established.The rolling slope provided struggles when the only irrigation methods were flood, hand lines or wheel lines, whereas Ephrata was relatively flat. What Sandy looked at more than the ground was the opportunity and the comradery he could share with many other young farmers just trying to make a name for themselves. At the time either decision would have sufficed, as the major crops were wheat, beans and forages in either location. There wasn’t even a distant thought about permanent crops, let alone vineyard.
As the ‘60s progressed Sandy went from a sole proprietor with summer help from his brother John to a partner when John graduated from Washington State University (Go Cougs!) in 1968. The days were filled with hard work and adverse conditions. Those who are familiar with Royal City know the summers are hot and springs are windy, which can be expected when farming in the desert.
The ‘60s were tough but created a base, and ‘70s were dynamic. Farmers in the middle of the ‘70s saw wheat prices reach levels that weren’t surpassed again until 2008. The money was flowing and the easiest thing was to continue the status quo. This is where the second most important decision was made: Why not try planting an apple orchard? There were a couple in the area already, but orchards in the area were scarce and they were told many times that they can’t grow good fruit in the Basin. Being stubborn Norwegians, that was all the motivation needed, so in 1980 a decision was made to alter the future of the Lawrence farming operation. At the time there were signs that the farming economy was beginning to slip and interest rates were climbing rapidly, but that was just one more reason to put your ground to the highest returning commodity, which at the time looked to be apples.
A crazy occurrence happened that spring that changed everything. May 18, 1980: John’s young family was sitting in church (wife, Laura; 5-year-old Josh; nearly 1-year-old Matthew) when they started hearing what sounded like thunder. As church ended and they walked outside to the car Josh remembers the sky looking ominous and recollects seeing something akin to red lightening. As they got in the car and turned on the radio they heard that Mt. St. Helens had erupted. Day turned into night within the drive home and as they pulled into Sandy’s house his kids were eating lunch outside in the pitch dark. That was an incredibly long afternoon waiting to watch the Disney program, as they always did on Sunday night.
Unfortunately, with the darkness came ash -- an ash that destroyed cars, pickups, tractors and anything with an engine that wasn’t properly filtered to handle it. It also destroyed first cutting alfalfa, which farmers ended up burning in some cases, and stunted many other crops. The Lawrences had planted their first acre of orchard less than a month prior, the farming economy was hitting the skids, interest levels were reaching record highs, and now the Lawrences and every other famer in the Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley needed disaster relief by way of low interest SBA loans. Not exactly a great start to the ‘80s for the Lawrence farm, to say the least.
There were many routes they could have taken, and planting more apples in 1984 may not have seemed to be the best decision at the time, but those apples, Red and Golden Delicious planted in 1980 and 1984, may have actually saved the farm. When so many others were struggling to make payments on ground and cover operating costs, those apples began to pay the Lawrences back and return revenue that kept the farm afloat. It was at that point that they were hooked.