ur organization allows the family-owned farm to service the big retailer. Everyone shares in the costs, the risks, and the rewards,” Mac Riggan says when summarizing Chelan Fresh.
Costs, risks, and rewards. These are things Mac says are inherent when you choose the life of farming treefruit. Chelan Fresh’s Marketing Director sits with his co-pilot, Marketing Manager Kathryn Grandy, as the two explain how this entity came to be, transforming family farms into a single, far-reaching arm for Washington treefruit.
That arm has a deeply-rooted foundation in family and cohesiveness, looking to build a trust between everyone involved from the orchards to the office.
“We have grown to become one of the largest premier suppliers in the country, but we are first and foremost a family of farmers,” Kathryn says. “Whether they are in families that support growers, or are growers themselves, there aren’t many here that aren’t somehow involved in the growing side of the industry.”
Activities like an annual bowling night to remember a lost team member and monthly soccer matches pitting “front of house” versus “back of house” keep the departments and companies cohesive and playful.
“We come up with silly team names and it helps to bring down that barrier between the people on the sales side and the people on the packing side,” Mac says while laughing over names like “Hard Core” and “Rejected Load.”
“It helps create a cohesive unit where everyone isn’t working for their colleagues, but for their friends,” Mac explains.
Chelan Fresh growers trust their workers so much that many have made farm hands into farm owners, making for an interesting change in culture for the region. “In Washington, the faces of the growers have changed,” Mac says. “Workers from Mexico have had an opportunity to buy from owners, and have continued the family values and strong work ethics necessary to farm successfully.”
He knows first-hand the importance of keeping the working bonds strong. “I grew up on a cherry farm with my dad, and the thing about a family business is there’s nowhere to hide,” Mac laughs as he talks triumphs and turmoils of being in such a business, having worked every side of the orchards from picking, to loading, to marketing. “Everything from the growing to the box, I’ve been a part of. And on a family farm, you work hard, many times in a stressful situation, making farming one of those businesses that need a good support system to stay in long term.”
And that is what Chelan Fresh offers the growers that make up its team: a support system that allows small family-owned farms to maximize their return.
Chelan Fresh has roots more than 100 years deep into Washington soil, melding itself together as Gebbers Farms, Chelan Fruit Cooperative, and MAGI, in August of 2004.
“The vision was to create a larger base of fruit growers to better supply retailers,” Mac explains, elaborating that the buy-side was consolidating quickly at the time and family farms needed the resources to match. Now, just shy of its 12th birthday, Chelan Fresh has been at the helm of a number of treefruit innovations in labor, sustainability, food safety, and its quest to bring both flavor and convenience to the consumer.
For the past seven years, Chelan Fresh has worked with the H2A Program, hiring workers from both Jamaica and Mexico, and the loyalty its growers have formed with their workforce has been far-reaching.
“Chelan Fresh growers utilize the guest worker program to supplement their domestic work force, providing employees with excellent housing, transportation, even recreational facilities for laborers,” Mac says.
This operation, Kathryn and Mac both share, has had a significant positive impact both stateside and abroad, giving people valuable work experience in Washington.
Outside-of-the-box ideas like this program flow over into Chelan Fresh’s practices and operations as well. Technology and sustainability fuel Chelan’s efficiency, from mitigating water use, to lowering the amount of electricity used, and bolstering food safety practices.
“Most of what we are doing in the name of food safety we have been doing from the beginning,” Mac explains, stating that growers have already been doing for years what is now being mandated across the industry. “You are naturally a steward of your own backyard.”
Another key focus for Chelan, that trends are aligned with, is flavor. Mac tells me that now more than ever flavor is an important component that the company is rising to meet.
“We are seeing the consumer becoming more purposeful about what they are eating, which bodes well for our company and for the industry,” Mac says, explaining that consumers’ taste buds were hijacked when World War II necessitated prepared foods containing an excess of salt and sugar. “Now, after eating candy and drinking soda, kids today don’t taste the sweetness of a cherry or a grape. But that’s beginning to change as consumers become more aware about what is going into their bodies.”
A product that has an opportunity to shine at this turn in consumer demand is Chelan’s Orondo Ruby cherry, a wholly different offering, Kathryn informs me.
“Grower Marcus Griggs found a tree in his orchard that was producing lush cherries. They were ripening earlier, bigger, and providing a more vibrant blush color,” Kathryn says. And the cherry was more different than Griggs could imagine. “He found that it actually had a different DNA than other cherries on the market, and so became a completely new cherry variety.”
The result is a sweet treat, exclusive to Chelan Fresh, that is offered as a limited, high-quality variety in the cherry category.
Additional innovations include standout varieties like the naturally small, but widely popular, Rockit Apple and Cup O’ Cherries with the “smart lid” that Mac says is more than just a point of standing out in the store.
“While part of our focus with the smart lid was differentiation, it was also to incorporate the convenience factor,” Mac explains, adding that convenience is what consumers love. “Usually the highest consumption rate is in foods bought out of convenience, such as convenient stores and vending machines. That is why we want to offer innovations like Cup O’ Cherries.”
So what can we expect in the future from a company that loves the people as much as the produce, cultivating a far-reaching family tree, if you will, of growers?
This, too, Mac and Kathryn are tight-lipped about, but something tells me there is plenty in the pipeline.
With deep roots, a vision, and an eye on innovation, it will be exciting to watch Chelan Fresh continue to blossom.