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The Greatest Yield

The Greatest Yield

It takes a village to raise something out of nothing.

We are journeying forever toward life's greatest yield; with each sister, colleague, or local grocery bagger we form a connection to—no matter how brief—our team of everyday warriors grows larger, and that greatness we seek comes closer.

Stemilt is building one such village with Equitable Food Initiative (EFI).

EFI was welcomed into the fold of this people-forward operation in recent years, and is now a full-fledged member of the family. As of August 2021, Stemilt announced that all of its owned farm and warehouse operations have become fully EFI Certified. The achievement not only expands the supplier’s ever-growing village, as Marketing Director Brianna Shales tells me, but it signifies an integral investment in the community Stemilt has cultivated since being founded: its team members.

 


Chandler James: Many congratulations on this exciting achievement, Brianna. I’m so excited to hear more about Stemilt’s collaboration with EFI.

Brianna Shales, Marketing Director, Stemilt: Thank you, we’re excited too! It’s a highly collaborative process, and EFI has been a joy to work with. We began partnering together in 2019 when we launched our first pilot program. After the successful trial, we sought and earned EFI Certification in September 2020 at our Quincy, Washington, orchard, where we grow apples and cherries. Our momentum with this program continued, and we soon decided to make a goal to become fully certified at all company orchards and warehouse/packing operations in 2021.

The Leadership Team formation and training started occurring, audits happened in the spring and summer, and we received full certification in August 2021, becoming the first apple, pear, and cherry company to do so!


CJ: It sounds like the process moved quite swiftly! I assume this is partly because many of EFI’s implementations align with Stemilt’s values as a people-first organization. What was the primary aspect of the program that supported this ideal?

BS: As part of the certification, EFI provides training to a group of our employees from one work area. The group is called a ‘Leadership Team’ and represents all cross-sections of that certification focus, composed of people with multiple work functions, different genders and ethnicities, and a wide window of capabilities. This composition helps ensure the group can collectively represent our broader team and help put continuous improvement projects into action. Following training, that Leadership Team works on solving a problem in the operations they oversee. They conduct research, plan, discuss, and present the solution before implementation and evaluation.

"This certification is helping both our own future and the future of agricultural work as a whole."

Brianna Shales, Marketing Director, Stemilt

 


CJ: From that operational standpoint, Stemilt’s employees have a direct hand in the long-term growth of the company. As they work toward the goal of continuous improvement that you speak of, what are some of the primary areas of focus for the Leadership Teams?

BS: The core areas of EFI’s more than 300 certification standards relate to pest management, food safety, and social responsibility. Developing a Leadership Team for each certified area has helped Stemilt formulate the process around continuous improvement. Moving forward, these teams will meet regularly to fortify the training and structure EFI helped us build.

We are excited to have these teams actively working on problem solving in a collaborative and proactive way.

 


CJ: It truly takes a Stemilt-sized village to bring your fruit to market. In a previous conversation, you said the EFI Certification “has nothing to do with fruit, yet everything to do with fruit, because it is providing training on soft skills throughout our operations,” and I am curious to learn how the Responsibly Grown, Farmworker Assured label will translate to sales.

BS: Shoppers continue to vote with their dollars, and this label communicates both the quality of our fruits and that they were grown in a responsible way. It’s important for buyers and consumers to know our fruits are produced safely and with great care from hard-working teams. With this label, EFI provides us with the foundation to help live out Stemilt’s purpose: to cultivate people and delight consumers through excellence.

Our team members are truly what make our products “World Famous Fruits.” As they gain a greater understanding of the role they play, our culture becomes stronger and we are able to collaborate more in order to continually improve. Using the EFI framework, we are able to train and support our members, increase teamwork and collaboration, and even identify future leaders of our organization. It’s all about building our culture and working together for that greater purpose.


CJ: So, essentially, the relationship between your people and the people you serve is a feedback loop: what they put in will come back to them, and vice versa. This reminds me of another continuous exchange in the produce industry: the one between us and Earth. In what ways has the recent EFI Certification supported Stemilt’s sustainability framework?

BS: Our sustainability and social responsibility program, called Responsible Choice®, was developed way back in 1989 as a way to farm responsibly. That is just another reason why EFI’s label fits so well with our company and culture. We know that being World Famous is a journey, not a destination where we will ever truly arrive. Having a culture of continuous improvement fits well with the long-time pillars of Responsible Choice. It looks at ways to improve our people, planet, and profits in order to make our business sustainable for generations to come.


CJ: That is such a lovely way of describing your company’s journey—an evolution that is unending and, therefore, forever growing stronger. At this very moment in Stemilt’s journey, how has the EFI Certification served the company, and how will it continue to?

BS: This certification is helping both our own future and the future of agricultural work as a whole. We are investing in our culture and our team members so that we can continue to see our purpose through and keep delivering World Famous Fruits to delight people around the world.

Now, it’s about continuing the progress with our Leadership Teams throughout each certified area. It’s also going to be about sharing ideas and best practices with EFI and learning from others that have aligned with the organization. EFI is incredibly supportive and continues to work with its grower/supplier partners to ensure that all of our successes with the program are shared.

 


CJ: And with that, Stemilt’s village grows even stronger. On a final note, Brianna, can you tell us what’s next?

BS: With the broad certification, we hope to start utilizing the EFI Responsibly Grown, Farmworker Assured label on our consumer packaging. We’ve already started doing this on some packs and hope to expand it in the future to our entire portfolio. We will also keep sharing the improvement work our EFI Leadership Teams implement in the coming months.

As I began penning this piece, the idea of cultivating people is what struck me; growing our team members inherently runs parallel to the journey of bringing fresh produce to the plate.

The ultimate goal of our industry may be to drive fresh fruit and vegetable consumption in kitchens across the world, but the unique, diverse, and whole humans we cultivate are the greatest yield.