In 1912, Byron Sarver Borton moved to the Yakima Valley from Albany, OR, to become a schoolteacher at the Marks School, a one-room schoolhouse just a two-mile horse ride from the 20-acre farm he purchased.
Mr. Borton’s tireless work ethic as both a teacher and farmer were evident to those around him, but little did he know that he was establishing core values that would be integral in transforming the 20-acre farm into a 5,500-acre industry leader in growing, storing, packing and selling more than 6 million boxes of fruit annually.
For a historical perspective on the company’s heritage, one needs to look no further than to the family’s patriarch, Richard Borton, one of Byron’s three sons, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday.
“From an early age, my dad taught me the values of discipline and hard work,” he said. “As a teacher, I remember getting hacks in front of the class, not really for being in trouble but to show no preferential treatment and to set an example for the other kids.”
Growing up on the farm, all three Borton boys — Byron Ervin, Don and Richard — participated in their share of chores beginning in grade school. From milking cows to thinning apples and working late nights protecting the orchards from frost with smudge pots, the boys were indoctrinated to the demands of farming at a very early age.
With a work ethic akin to the one modeled by his father, Richard Borton graduated magna cum laude from Washington State University with a degree in electrical engineering, leading him to a promising career with Pacific Power & Light.
Richard’s older brother, Don, graduated from Washington State in the ROTC program. In the wake of World War II, Don was called to duty.
“I remember having a birthday dinner for Don in 1941 when he got a call to report immediately,” Richard said. “He was sent overseas and was later tragically killed while on patrol leading his men behind enemy lines on a reconnaissance mission. It was during the time that Don was away at war that I began to feel the tugon my heart to come back home to the farm to help my father, who was nearing retirement and working too hard. In 1942, I joined my older brother Byron and my father in the family farming business.”
The family farm continued to grow after Richard and Byron joined their father. Byron supervised the orchard operation while Richard managed warehouse packing and assisted his father with bookkeeping and accounting.
In the late 1940s, a major fire destroyed most of the packinghouse and packingline. According to Richard, “My dad severely burned his hands trying to salvage records and other important items during the fire.”
During this time, they rebuilt the packinghouse and expanded to more than 250 acres, storing and packing over 250,000 boxes of fruit annually.
It was at this time that a third generation of Bortons returned home to carry on the family tradition. Growing up as neighbors and cousins, Byron’s and Richard’s sons, Bill and John, were more like brothers, learning the ropes of farming just as their fathers had. While they briefly considered working outside of the family business while studying in college, both returned home.
According to Bill, who graduated from Washington State University with a degree in horticulture before serving four years in the Army, “During college, I thought I might go into horticulture research, but I ended up being drawn back to the family business because I truly enjoyed it.”
John, who graduated from Seattle Pacific University with a double major in chemistry and business, considered a career in chemistry before having a serious discussion with his father.
“It was a tough time in the apple industry,” John said. “My father and his brother Byron were unsure of the future and didn’t want me and Bill to feel obligated to come back to the farm. They encouraged us to consider other career options and thought it might be a good time to sell the family business. Surprised by the possibility of the family farm being sold, I re-evaluated my thoughts and decided to come back while the opportunity was still there.”
When they returned to Yakima, WA, together in 1972, Bill and John were presented with a unique opportunity. Rather than a traditional succession plan of gradually transferring responsibility to their sons, Byron and Richard handed the reins of the business over to their sons soon after they arrived.
“If we were going to be the future of the company, [our fathers] wanted us to sink or swim by our owndecisions,” John Borton said.
Bill assumed responsibility for all growing operations, while John focused his attention on sales, marketing and warehouse operations. Armed with the motivation to expand the company, they would oversee a period of exponential growth over the next two decades.
When discussing significant factors in the growth of the company in the 70s, 80s and 90s, Bill and John point to a number of important developments.
In 1979, a second fire once again destroyed most of the warehouse and packingline. In the process of rebuilding, Borton & Sons partnered with Food Machinery Corp. to develop and install the apple industry’s first electronic sizer and color sorter.
While many improvements were made with continuous research and development, Borton & Sons was able to help develop this leading-edge technology that would soon become the industry standard. And innovation wasn’t limited to warehouse operations.
On the farming side of the business, Borton & Sons invested in several large parcels of undeveloped land, allowing for the diversification into new apple varieties. One of the largest of these was the Flat Top Ranch, east of Pasco, WA, which features over 2,800 acres.
According to Bill Borton, “Having a considerable amount of undeveloped land allowed us to be among the first to market new varieties as they became popular. This allowed us to be industry leaders in the development of Fuji, Gala, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Jonagold, Cameo and, most recently, Honeycrisp.”
John Borton also points to the company’s decision to acquire two large apple and cherry packing and storage facilities as critical components of entering the cherry business, allowing for the expansion of its cherry and pear production, enhancing the company’s product mix.
The decision to diversify into businesses outside of farming has also been integral in the company’s overall growth.
“We recognized an opportunity in construction and real estate development, acquiring and building more than 600 apartment units in the Yakima Valley,” said John Borton. “In addition, we designed and developed the Apple Tree Golf Course & Resort community.”
Carved from the natural rolling terrain of the surrounding orchards, Apple Tree has quickly become one of the Pacific Northwest’s premier golf courses. Apple Tree’s signature 17th hole features the world-famous apple island green, which has become an icon in the apple industryand is widely believed to be the state’s most photographed golf hole.
While unprecedented growth has occurred under the leadership of John and Bill Borton, a fourth generation of Bortons has returned to the business, poised to make its mark with expansion, innovation and diversification.
John’s daughter, Katie (Borton) Birley, returned along with her husband, Andy Birley, in 2002. Katie’s responsibilities include involvement in Apple Tree’s golf course, restaurant and resort community, in addition to overseeing the recent construction of a 25,000-square-foot corporate headquarters for Borton & Sons. Andy serves as general manager of Borton & Sons operations. John’s son, Eric, who returned in 2011, is the company’s vice president of international sales. Bill’s son, Byron, is the company’s chief visionary officer.
When asked how the up-and-coming generation of Bortons will make its mark on the future, Byron Borton said, “The young blood coming into the company is like a shot of adrenaline. Not only do we have fresh ideas about the company’s direction, the enthusiasm to build upon what we have is quite exciting. Technology continues to change, not only in the packingsheds but also in the field. Each year, new strains of cherry and apple varieties are released into the market. It takes quite a while to truly evaluate the long-term performance of each new variety. Everybody is afraid of missing the next big thing — such as Honeycrisp — so you are seeing growers taking gambles on varieties before they have been truly vetted. Keeping your eyes open to new and innovative prospects is half the battle.”
Eric Borton believes the global marketplace is the most significant area of opportunity for growth into the future.
“While domestic sales will continue to drive our core business, international exports to developing markets around the world represent an enormous opportunity for every type of fruit we grow,” he said. “It’s important that we not only understand how each international market is unique, but also to invest time learning about each culture and cultivating relationships.”
When asked what his grandfather, Byron Sarver Borton, would think of Borton & Sons 100 years later, John Borton said, “I think he would be thrilled with what we’ve accomplished, but I think he would be most proud of how we’ve honored the values and heritage of the family throughout the company’s growth. As the next generation takes the baton, it’s our hope that we honor and preserve that legacy for years to come.”