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The Art of Organics

Three decades can seem like a long time in many industries, but in fresh produce the time just flies by. If you ask anyone in the business, it is not easy growing flavorful and trademarked varieties, but when you have the right balance of innovation, adaptability, and fortitude—great things can happen. This year at Stemilt Growers, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of our Artisan Organics™ program.

Our journey began in 1989, at a time when the only organic presence came from small boutique growers or shops that took the form of roadside stand operations. The apple industry was brought to its knees when an episode of 60 Minutes featuring Meryl Streep spoke negatively about a growth regulator called Alar, which most apple growers were using throughout the U.S. Alar allowed growers to hang their apples on the tree longer to achieve a better ripeness, but it was said that Alar was a cause of cancer. This was scientifically proven wrong, but, as you know, once any belief hits the airwaves, public opinion can become a tremor across any industry.

Roger Pepperl, Marketing Director, Stemilt GrowersThe damage was done. The industry lost millions of dollars and much of its reputation to boot. So, Tom Mathison, our Founder and West Mathison’s grandfather, decided that he wasn’t going to be defenseless to chemical companies’ reputations and negative PR. Tom began to convert a large orchard north of Wenatchee, Washington, to organic. People were skeptical of Tom’s idea and, in fact, questioned his decisions. However, when the dust settled, this once unprofitable orchard created a profit.

Thus began the organic journey for Stemilt. This orchard eventually became over 400 acres of organic apples in a marketplace where 10 acres seemed large. Tom changed the landscape in a series of three short years. Like most of Tom’s work, it was done way before the market was asking for it. He was a visionary the industry came to love.

When Tom and Stemilt kicked off the program, the primary varieties dominating the market were Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and some Gala. Jump ahead three rapid decades and times have changed, as we all know. The Mathison family, now led by West, continued to evolve the concept to include new and higher demand items which, today, include Honeycrisp, SweeTango®, Piñata®, Fuji, and Pink Lady®. We are even starting to expand the program with an exciting and unique variety: the Rave® apple.

West is amazing at planning and thinking strategically—an element of his leadership that has allowed us to truly look downfield. He has set the company on a track that, when an orchard is planted, he already has determined how much of the orchard—and varieties on it—will become organic in three years and beyond. Our organic mix is part of our five- and ten-year strategy and has become one of our core competencies today.

“...When you have the right balance of innovation, adaptability, and fortitude—great things can happen.”

-Roger Pepperl, Marketing Director, Stemilt Growers

Stemilt has become a leader in organic pears, organic cherries, organic peaches, and organic nectarines. Today, we guide our retail partners with an organic plan that will meet the demands of their customer base and push them towards growth.

I often get questions about Stemilt that include,“How has your evolution into the organic segment impacted or challenged your mission and vision for growing the most flavorful and best-quality apples in the market?” Honestly, growing organic has allowed us to cultivate even more flavor due to some of the inherent elements of the process.

Growing organic treefruit allows you to achieve great flavors fairly easily. Most organic orchards struggle to get enough nitrogen due to the absence of synthetic fertilization and the main resources being used are, instead, manures and composts. Because of this, the trees tend to be light on nitrogen, and the fruit they set is not being pushed by rapid growth. Due to this process, the fruit will actually have great complex flavors. We can control the amount of nitrogen and growth the trees are allowed and that makes for an incredible apple and eating experience. Learning from organic farming is just a smart thing to do.

Apples from left to right: Pink Lady®,  SweeTango®, Rave®, Fuji, and Piñata®

One of the challenges we find in the organic space is alternate bearing, where we have a big crop this year and no crop next year on a particular orchard. This can be solved by better feeding programs and crop thinning to prevent overcropping one season—this helps to stave off any crop failure the next season. We try to make sure our trees get in a better balance to cut out potential light crops.

Fireblight—a disease affecting apples, pears, and some other members of the family Rosaceae—is another serious issue that isn’t easy to solve. It has caused hundreds of lost acres over the years. Pears, Pink Lady, and Piñata can all have extreme issues on this front. The ways we address Fireblight include strict management of affected limbs and using new rootstocks that slow excessive growth, which can be an accelerator of the issue. New sports or some varieties are often Fireblight resistant these days. Feeding is an issue as well, and we use composts to help in our soil dynamics. The soil’s ability to hold helpful bacteria that keep elements available to the roots. So, in general, the chemical tools to grow organic fruit are more challenging, but they are getting better every year. Organic farming solutions are often so good that they are used in conventional farming also. We are learning constantly.

And those moments of key learning are opportunities to celebrate. The ups and downs of adapting to the changing organic landscape and addressing the demands of the fruit make everything we do, and have done, that much more satisfying and rewarding. The successes we have experienced really help us acknowledge those hurdles.

One of the biggest achievements we celebrate is our status as one of the pioneers of today’s organic production. Tom and the team, and now West and his, were willing to take chances and losses for the overall market that occurred. This primarily took place in the late ’80s and ’90s. These were the people who not only grew organic product, but did it to a scale that had never been done before. They turned it from a specialty into a job!

The next real milestone was the proliferation of new, high flavor, and unique items that replaced the common mix of organic. This really turned the market on. This happened as we hit those years around 2005 and beyond.

"We all need to seek to raise the bar and then stay along for the ride."

There are so many more breakthroughs that have occurred along the way, from when organic food stores began to take organic merchandising to the next level, to a new shift from a solely conventional supermarket industry, to a rising tide of organic real estate. Another big milestone is the advent of all the great grower brands that deliver the message of who grew their food. This will end up being the strategy that will drive organic products in contemporary retailers. People want to know the story behind the food on their plates.

It’s a phrase often used, but a rising tide lifts all boats. We all need to seek to raise the bar and then stay along for the ride. We are going to need more retail space in the mix to keep up with demand in the coming year, and years ahead. Store layouts are not friendly to consumers who cross-shop from organic to conventional. We will need more integration of the key categories. Growers are going to need varieties that are less susceptible to disease and pests. Organic will need more collaboration between growers and retail to make this work. Retail needs to sell bigger packages of organic product.

If you look at the sales breakdown in the grocery store, the organic shopper is the largest purchaser of produce in the supermarket, yet we choose to sell organic in smaller packages than conventional because of the retail price point. This is a paradigm that needs to change.

We need to sell this value in bigger increments to the people willing to buy it. We can’t make farming about low-cost, or organic will not have the chance to help change produce consumption which is lagging in today’s food business. Foodservice operators who buy a lot of dollars with much less volume need to develop more menu choices with organic offerings as well. This is happening in a smaller way already, and I am optimistic that it will keep going.

So what is next, folks? This is the question that energizes our team and also keeps us up at night. I hope to see better organic methods that will allow us to sell more of our crops organically. This is happening but it can evolve even more. I see a point in the next decade when 50 percent of the produce sold could be organic. Could a decade be too soon? Possibly. But, in my opinion, it is coming.

Among his decorated portfolio, Roger was a produce buyer and merchandiser for the Midwest supermarket Meijer for 21 years and has been Stemilt Growers’ Marketing Director for 19. He has served on boards for several industry groups, including a year as Executive Board Chairman for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, member of Produce Marketing Association’s Exhibitor Advisory Committee, and United Fresh Board Member and Chairman of the Marketing-Merchandising Council. His major objective is to innovate and create a brand that separates products from becoming “commodities.” He believes the best marketing team members in the produce industry make goals fun and achievable.