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Cherry Strong: A Q&A with Brenda Thomas, President, Orchard View Cherries

Cherry Strong: A Q&A with Brenda Thomas, President, Orchard View Cherries

Cherry on.

Though intended as a sign-off, it felt like the first words Brenda Thomas ever spoke to me. There is a way in which life mantras and mottos, once found and believed in, ring at a higher frequency that reverberates beyond speaking to true understanding.

I felt, in that small phrase, that I understood some part of Brenda, though we had never met and not yet spoken beyond that first email.

This woman lives cherries.

President of Orchard View Cherries, Brenda partook in a forum with exclusive marketing partner Oppy last year within its Wilo group—Women in Leadership at Oppy. Her story, like her motto, sent out a frequency that had everyone buzzing as she detailed the ​​winding loop of how she was born in—and then brought back—to produce. Revealing crucial and intriguing checkpoints along the way, she shares with me a very individual scope and style that has allowed her to lead the family-owned operation through its next great steps.

So, get cozy, and cherry on.

Melissa De Leon Chavez: Brenda, as a member of the founding family and now the company’s leader, what in your mind makes Orchard View unique in the produce industry?

Brenda Thomas, President, Orchard View Cherries: We are a 100-percent cherry-focused company. That is all we grow, pack, and pick. It is our full-time focus and passion, without any distractions.

We are so fortunate to live in the unique environment of Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, which provides the perfect microclimate for cherries. While there are a lot of highs and lows with such a challenging item, we focus on the highs and are, at every moment, either completely immersed in the current crop or getting ready for the next one.

We never lose sight of our goal: to raise delicious cherries for the world to enjoy.

MDC: Definitely a great goal to maintain focus toward. Speaking of uniqueness, I hear your career path is a particularly individual one. Can you tell me a bit about your unconventional road from produce?

BT: We are a fourth-generation family-owned operation, and I am the oldest grandchild. We were all encouraged to find other careers before deciding to be a part of the family business, however. So, I was a veterinarian for
20 years.

I loved it, and, interestingly, the two vocations are similar in that you are diagnosing and treating a patient who can’t speak. Trees are very similar to animals in that respect.

"We were all encouraged to find other careers before deciding to be a part of the family business, however. So, I was a veterinarian for 20 years.”

Brenda Thomas, President, Orchard View Cherries

MDC: Oh, wow! It’s certainly a wide leap from the family business, yet you tie the two together beautifully. How, then, did you find your way back to fresh produce?

BT: Orchard View was going through succession planning, and it seemed like a challenge I wanted to take on. Being a veterinarian, you are trained to have empathy and compassion, mixed with hard discussions about topics like finance, as well as having to rapidly problem-solve and take accountability minute-to-minute on those decisions. I knew I could bring those skills over to our cherry business.

I also learned that, in having pets as patients, I was also taking care of the people who brought them in. Similarly, you are not just taking care of what is right in front of you in fresh produce. You are taking care of everything that goes into it and everything that follows.

Another commonality is that stress management was, and is, something I have to know and practice, especially working with cherries every day. As the leader of the company, especially, I can’t expect others not to be too stressed if I appear too stressed. Others look to you for that path
to follow.

Now, this is my 15th season of being back on the farm I grew up on. Cherries have to be in your blood, and it certainly is that way for me.

MDC: It sounds like it. In the time we’ve been speaking, Brenda, I hear you returning consistently to the family feeling and great treatment of people. How does Orchard View live this value, and where does it stem from?

BT: There is a lot of trust involved in the cherry business, and it is easy to get caught up in the stress I spoke of earlier. I love being here every day because of who I work with. Those connections are what bring me to Orchard View each day.

It takes a family to be cherry-focused with the highs and lows of such a fruit, so we are a very tight-knit team and value people deeply here. This is a people business. We encourage and provide opportunities for employees to grow and move up in the company and count on repeat employees to come back to help us harvest every season.

A lot of our workforce comes with their families to participate with us, so we not only provide housing for their comfort, but we have play structures at our facilities for the kids to ensure crews are supported. We integrate H2-A into our existing workforce because we are all one team focused on our group goal of raising delicious cherries.

MDC: That formula certainly seems to have held, because I hear there is also a big anniversary coming up for Orchard View. What does that mean for your family-owned company?

BT: You are right. In 2023, we will be celebrating 100 years! We are preparing for the celebration with a lot of big plans in the works—it’s a really exciting and pivotal point in our business. We are very proud of our family and our employees, as everyone has been so supportive of us and helped get the company here.

It means something monumental that we have a part of the orchard that has been around since the beginning—they may not be the same trees, but it’s the same soil my great-grandparents first planted. I love having that connection, and I love growing a crop that is a treat people buy because it makes them happy. It brings excitement to share what we do, and I really enjoy growing a crop that sells itself through the excitement it generates and has now for almost a century.

"In 2023, we will be celebrating 100 years! We are preparing for the celebration with a lot of big plans in the works—it’s a really exciting and pivotal point in our business.”

MDC: Very well put, Brenda. I feel like the excitement for what’s to come is palpable, so what is on the horizon? What is a key takeaway buyers should understand as these pivotal moments fall into place?

BT: We always really appreciate how retailers get excited for cherry season. There is a cherry frenzy, and we love getting feedback from them. We look forward to continuing that tradition and, because of that, retailers are always invited to come experience the farm with us. It is always a positive experience that will not only benefit your knowledge as a buyer, but can impact how you feel about what you do. Connection does not just benefit the consumer. Buyers who have the opportunity and connect with the suppliers get much more out of the transaction. Nothing has taught us the importance of human connection like COVID over the past couple of years.

Even though cherries are in the grocery store for a short time, it takes a year of work every day to deliver delicious cherries. Although the harvest window is tight, it’s a year-round process as we consistently research and trial new varieties, trim and prune the trees to perfection, and teach and train the employees to improve our harvest and manage the crop in a timely, efficient, and generous way.

This is a high-stakes puzzle that we are constantly putting together in order to deliver a product that will sell itself
once available.

When they get to the store, Orchard View cherries are a sure thing; everything leading up to the shelf being just as assured is a dynamic we must constantly strive to achieve.

With distinctive viewpoints and values that can only have come from her select background, Brenda leaves me with the perfect balance of optimism and realism. Her chosen path, while challenging, is still chosen every day and done so with joy.

As she herself has said, this treefruit is in her blood in a way that makes me think Brenda and the team she leads are doing much more than cherrying on.

They are cherry strong.