Innovation. Environmental stewardship. Social responsibility. The phrases are now commonly used in the fresh produce industry. But 20 years ago, Stemilt Growers Inc., based in Wenatchee, WA, saw the wisdom of incorporating the concepts into its business practices. And the commitment continues to be recognized nationally.
"Our founder, Tom Mathison, was a believer in innovation," said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt director of marketing. "It's in our culture here."
Mr. Pepperl said that Mr. Mathison, who died Dec. 26 at the age of 82, was the first person to brand apples. During the 1980s, Mr. Mathison introduced the "Stemilt" sticker. Although the sticker of the day was not a PLU -- which later became an industry standard -- it did identify product as coming from Stemilt Growers.
"He was proud of the brand," Mr. Pepperl said.
Mr. Mathison also introduced random-weight bags for cherries and was the first to use bench-top near-infrared equipment for product inspection, according to Mr. Pepperl. The technology is now commonplace in the fresh produce industry.
Stemilt co-owner and fourth-generation grower Kyle Mathison was honored Jan. 22 as the "Most Innovative Ag Person of 2008" by the Wenatchee Business Journal as part of its 19th annual Readers Choice Awards. He was recognized for his achievements on the 20-acre compost farm he started in 2005 on Stemilt Hill. Rather than sending waste products to a landfill, Mr. Mathison has been composting culled fruit, wood chips and other green waste to create a rich fertilizer for growing operations.
According to Mr. Pepperl, plans call for the creation of additional composting sites near other Stemilt orchards in the future.
The work is part of Stemilt's "Responsible Choice" program, which was initiated in 1989.
"Consumers who choose Stemilt's 'World Famous Fruit' can be assured that they are purchasing not only healthy and nutritious products but products that have been produced responsibly," the company said of the program. Other components of "Responsible Choice" are carbon emission reduction, energy conservation, water conservation, integrated pest management, minimal packaging and recycling. The company is also a leader in the field when it comes to organic production.
Last month, the Mathison family was featured in an episode of the PBS television series, "America's Heartland." The segment, which was filmed during the height of cherry production, gave viewers an opportunity to glimpse the family's innovative approach to agriculture. Another airing of the episode is scheduled for Feb. 11 on KVIE in Sacramento, CA.
The episode continues to build on an existing relationship between Stemilt and PBS. Stemilt Growers promotes its apples and pears through the Sesame Workshops and the "Healthy Habits for Life" initiative.
Several years ago, Stemilt Growers hit upon an unusual way to minimize damage to cherry crops caused by birds. "We hire a falconer," Mr. Pepperl said.
A falcon is released and allowed to circle high above the orchards. "The bird doesn't kill anything," Mr. Pepperl explained. "When the falcon is flying around in the air, it scares the begeebers out of other birds. It's pretty effective. It saves us a lot of money. It's really sustainable."
Looking toward the future, Mr. Pepperl said that Stemilt Growers is working with a group of public and private landowners who are interested in establishing an industrial riverfront rehabilitation program along the Columbia River. The work will help create habitat for wildlife and nesting birds.