Superior work is often defined by its beginning, and for Kathryn Klein, Co-Owner of Hood River Cherry Company, her life’s work started with hard labor. Ten agonizing hours of it.
“May 4, 1993, was the day I went into labor and gave birth to our youngest son, Kristoff, as well as the day we planted our first cherry tree at the orchard in Hood River,” Kathryn glows as she dives into the serendipitous story of her company’s origin. “I believe this was more than a coincidence. That day set in motion a way of living we couldn’t have possibly predicted.”
If you are the type who believes in signs, the symbolism here is clear. The events of that fateful day aligned Kathryn’s path as cultivator of life and land, serving not only as an inspiring leader for the exemplary grower which now spans three generations, but also as a mother and a woman pioneer watching the produce industry evolve over the past three decades.
Kathryn and her husband, Brad Fowler—her counterpart in the business—have both spent their entire lives in the majestic Mount Hood region of Oregon, where the towering, pristine white peak of the mountain looms over the horizon in the fairytale landscape. Kathryn was raised on a small family farm there, where as a child she picked and tasted her first perfectly ripened cherry, an experience she will never forget. As she blossomed into adulthood, Kathryn set out to evoke that first magical memory with an orchard of her own, nestled right on majestic Mount Hood. Since its conception in 1993, Kathryn and Brad have expanded that orchard, now Hood River Cherry Company, to span 375 acres, with another 100 high-elevation acres on the way this year.
“We knew that the Hood River Valley could produce a better cherry,” Kathryn shares. “We set out to reproduce, and maybe even improve upon, the exquisite taste of those tree-ripened, hand-picked, high-elevation cherries we remembered from our childhood. We love what we do and the happiness we create through our delicious cherries—we’re so excited to be planting even more.”
Despite the flurry of activity surrounding the cherry season each year, starting an orchard is an exercise in patience. From the day the baby trees are planted, it takes five years before they bear the first small crop, and ten years after that to reach full production. It is truly a year-round job to nurture and care for the fruit. In fact, Kathryn tells me, bringing crops to fruition is a lot like raising a family.
At Hood River Cherry Company, cherries are a family affair, with Kathryn and Brad’s entire clan deeply invested in running the operation, in one capacity or another. Their oldest son, Mario Guisto, has his own orchard and the company packs his cherries in its facilities. Their middle son, Tony Guisto, returns to help out during harvest. Their daughter, Kathryn Gidley, has been with the company for years assisting with sales and heading the accounting department. And their youngest son, Kristoff Fowler, is helping to manage the packaging plant during the summer. Orcharding runs in their blood, and innovation is prolific throughout their genes.
"We aren’t in a sprint to be the biggest; we’re in a marathon to be the best. It’s been an amazing 25 years, and if we have our way, it will be a great 25 more at the very least.”
“We are constantly testing and evaluating new varieties, new rootstocks, new horticulture practices, and new ideas, and we will never stop,” Kathryn contends, with a calm conviction that demonstrates she means business. “Our niche is growing the sweetest cherries in the country, and to do that, we have to innovate. If we don’t, we’ll lose our way and become just another cherry company.”
Despite operating an orchard halfway up the tallest mountain in Oregon, Kathryn relays that she is always challenging herself to stay a cut above the rest of her competitors. Both figuratively—and literally.
“The current trend in agriculture is to get ever-bigger: add more acres, buy more equipment, acquire the largest chain customers...We’re not buying into that,” Kathryn offers with a smile. “We are focused on growing and harvesting cherries of exceptional quality, while remaining cost-efficient."
In a category that gets swept up in a race every season, Kathryn and Brad’s slow and steady approach has worked astoundingly well for the Hood River Cherry Company. From meticulous growing methods, to delicate harvesting and shipping practices; every protocol has been painstakingly planned to ensure the company delivers on the promise to provide the quality cherries Kathryn remembers from her childhood.
Swimming against the current can be tiresome, but with consumers’ tidal shift towards healthy food and small-batch, hand-crafted products with unique origin stories, Kathryn’s fortitude is paying off. Retailers selling her cherries are able to leverage the mindful nature, fresh taste, and fascinating story behind the brand in order to capitalize on the delicious fruit in their produce departments. The company’s cherries are impressive: improbably large, with a minimum of 21 brix compared to the industry standard of 15. The fruit is hand-selected, between size eight and ten, for every box. The variety is also available a little later in the year due to the longer growing season.
“Our cherries grow plumper and sweeter thanks to our tree-ripening process. We pick and size the cherries by hand to avoid bruising. Our high elevation fruit takes longer to mature, and the extended growing season gives it more time to soak up nutrients and sweetness,” Kathryn beams. “And while some companies strive to produce ten tons of cherries per acre, we strive to harvest half of that. Our low tonnage means our fruit receives more nutrients, resulting in larger, better-tasting, sweeter cherries.”
As the proverbial cherry on top of the deal, the company has its own on-site facilities to ensure the fruit doesn’t have to endure a long, bumpy ride to processing. Instead they are hydrocooled within hours of harvesting, and are delicately handled as employees meticulously hand-pack each box to ship overnight, ensuring that the freshest fruit arrives at retail.
The company is not only elevating its operation—with the addition of the high-elevation acreage—but the entire industry, by means of Kathryn’s principled leadership. With her and Brad at the helm, she and her family have nurtured a passionate work environment at Hood River Cherry Company—and one of the keystones of the philosophy is to embrace female leadership and diversity in all of its programs.
“Aside from being committed to maintaining high-quality standards from tree to box, we have high standards for ourselves, and we are dedicated to reaching out to other women and underrepresented communities to make the entire industry more diverse,” Kathryn adds. “As more and more women become farmers in our region and nationwide, I’m hopeful our role, representation, and respect in the industry will grow as well.
Kathryn admits that it has been uniquely challenging to take the path less traveled as a woman in fresh produce, before the relatively recent sea change brought more balance to the industry. She has plenty of experience to draw upon, having navigated all of the obstacles involved with being the only woman in the room on countless occasions.
“It’s been difficult at times, but it’s pushed me to work harder and go further than I ever would have,” Kathryn explains.
“I always tell women in the industry to just be themselves and not to be intimidated—your voice, input, and opinion have immense value.”
Raised by a Marine, Kathryn attributes the work ethic instilled in her from a young age for her ability to excel in produce, despite the challenges. Showing up, doing her best, and putting one foot after another with an eye toward the horizon have all helped her stay the course and grow Hood River Cherry Company. In fact, Kathryn admits that she sometimes has a hard time slowing down. She credits Brad and her children’s involvement in the company for teaching her how to stop and smell the roses or, in her case, blossoms. With her kin so close at hand, business and family are part of the same universe, one which has cherries firmly planted at the center.
“They are as passionate about cherries as we are,” Kathryn gushes about her children. “If we have it our way, our grandchildren will work here some day as well. Even today, it makes us proud to see our whole family deliver the very best cherries from Oregon’s Hood River Valley to families around the world.
At Hood River Cherry Company, the meaning of the word family extends beyond just a genetic bond. At Kathryn’s organization it encompasses the staff, as well. As she explains, the company culture is an extension of the family culture—caring and compassionate down to the last employee.
“Many of our workers have been with us for decades and have harvested with us year after year,” Kathryn reveals. “We watch their children grow up and share in their family birthday parties and school graduations. We believe in supporting each other, open communication, and putting each other first.”
This philosophy has carried the company far along its steadfast journey, and it is seeing major payoffs as a result. With a proud smile, Kathryn reveals that Hood River Cherry Company has seen record breaking numbers in recent years. A trend that isn’t likely to slow down as Kathryn, Brad, and their family continue to methodically and meticulously pursue their simple dream. And, despite the obstacles along that path, Kathryn will tell you this endeavor has truly been a labor of love.