It was never the Mannings’ intention to become orchardists.
In fact, as Mike and Pam fell in love in Portland as highschoolers, made it through college and got jobs in the city, their minds couldn’t have been further from The Dalles and cherry trees. Mike worked in tires and Pam worked for Coca-Cola for years, until she quit and they moved to start a family in Gresham.
Four kids, 80 sheep, two goats and a flock of geese later, the young family was living a farmhouse dream, but they felt like where they were just wasn’t the right place to raise their kids. They wanted somewhere different. Somewhere homier.
Somewhere like The Dalles.
“We drove all over the Northwest looking for a place to raise our family,” Mike said. “And we settled in The Dalles. We decided that this would be the best place for our kids to grow up and get a good education.”
In 1987, Mike sold his interest in the tire company he had been working at and the pair found Nelson Tire in The Dalles. They purchased it and by 1989 had sold their house in Gresham to move to The Dalles and raise their family, just like they had dreamed.
“Bringing up my children in The Dalles was so great,” Pam said. “They had all kinds of Northern Wasco County sports, they had swimming and baseball and softball and soccer. The kids were involved, and yet I didn’t have to go very far to get four kids in different things moving.”
“The Dalles is a really different place,” Mike said. “Anybody that is here really has the opportunity to be what they are.”
Still, it was almost a decade before they would get into the cherry industry, after they moved up onto Three Mile Road in 1998, purchasing an orchard that would become Blossom Ridge Farm.
“It was just a lucky kind of thing,” Pam said. “We were looking for something else because we had spent 10 years at our home in The Dalles and to move up onto Three Mile, it was an opportunity. The orchard was great, the home had a view, and the kids were young and it was a great place to come home to. It was something different.”
Despite now finding themselves with an orchard full of cherries — specifically processing cherries to be turned into maraschino — they still had the tire business, which remained their focus until Mike fell ill in 2000. The Mannings sold the tire business and decided to go all in on the cherries. Unfortunately, breaking out into cherries was not an easy task. In fact, they really couldn’t have had a rougher start, Mike said.
Right after their purchase, processing cherries started to have trouble, he said. Suddenly, the model changed so that orchardists weren’t getting paid for their year’s crop until the end of three years. And just when they thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. The market made it so they could only deliver half the processing cherries that had been historically delivered. It was a crisis at the time, but in hindsight, it’s more like a blessing, Mike said.
“One of the best things that happened was the collapse of the maraschino industry, because that forced us to immediately change,” he said. “And since we were green, we didn’t know any better and we went at it full steam and really worked at it.”
Their work paid off. They made the switch to fresh cherries and now, two decades later, their orchard has more than 20 varieties of fresh cherries, some of which are new, cutting edge varieties from Canada or New York that they were able to sign agreements for.
In many ways, their ability to stay at the forefront of cherry varieties was because of Pam.
In 2005, Pam started working with the Oregon State University Extension Service, specifically in cherries. With a background and a degree in science, she was more than able to jump in and start learning all about cherries, from varieties to rootstocks and most importantly, what cherries were the best.
With OSU Extension, Pam said they would go to markets in Portland and bring cherries to get direct feedback.
“We would bring cherries for specific reasons,” she said. “We brought different varieties and would ask, ‘Do you like the color? Do you like the taste? The size?’ And we would learn things and offer that up to orchardists.”
Today, Pam and Mike both find themselves beginning to wrap up the cherry chapter of their lives. As they get older, they find themselves facing retirement and preparing to sell their orchard and move, which is bittersweet, with the love they have for the orchard.
“Working in the orchards is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done,” Mike said. “It’s a privilege, a real privilege.”
When one door closes, another opens, however.
“We’re getting ready to do something else,” Pam said. “And we will, because that’s just what we do. It’s different but it’s good. Exciting.”
For now, though, the “something else” directly on their radar is serving as King Bing and Queen Anne in the 42nd Annual Northwest Cherry Festival, which almost feels like coming full circle, Pam said, as they’ve been involved with the Cherry Festival since the 2000s. Not only did they frequently participate in the baking and cooking contest, but two of their daughters were also on the Sweetheart Court, one in 2002 and one in 2004.
To be able to be a part of the Cherry Festival one last time before moving onto their next chapter is not just icing on the cake, but also a cherry on top.
“I’m really honored,” Pam said. “I’ve never been queen before!”