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One man’s vision builds strong organic foundation for Stemilt

The vision and foresight of one man built a pathway into the future. Roger Pepperl, director of marketing for Stemilt Growers Inc. in Wenatchee, WA, attributes the company’s success in the organic arena to company founder Tom Mathison.

“Tom Mathison, who has since passed away, took Stemilt into a path of organic production and organic practices as a response to the Alar crisis, a growth regulator for apples, in which apples were attacked on a “60 Minutes” segment with Meryl Streep on a health-risk issue,” Mr. Pepperl told The Produce News on Aug. 24.

“The apple industry was later vindicated on the issue, but not without harm,” he said. “Tom said he wanted to protect Stemilt’s future by reducing pesticide and herbicide use in our operation.”

Then in its infancy, Mr. Pepperl said, “Organic farming became a learning experience that helped us get to the point that it reduced our inputs by over 50 percent. So organic farming only grew in numbers at Stemilt for years to follow and took us to the leadership role we are at today. Much of our conventional farming uses organic practices today because of Tom’s vision.”

Organic commodities are marketed by Stemilt under the “Artisan Organics” label, emphasizing farm freshness and flavor.

Organic apple production has been a hallmark for the company. “Stemilt began apples in 1989 in a large way,” Mr. Pepperl noted. “So [we are] 22 years and counting.”

“Stemilt transitioned a large track of acres four years ago, which has since become organic,” he said. “Today’s plan is focused on taking more of the popular items into organic while reducing organic numbers on varieties that have lost market share such as Red Delicious and Golden Delicious. organic SweeTango, Honeycrisp, Gala and Fuji have been an emphasis.”

Apples are not the only commodity seeing an increase in production. According to Mr. Pepperl, organic pear production is also on the rise. “We have grown by 40 percent in volume on both,” he noted. “The large transition four years ago fueled this.”

Stemilt also grows and markets a variety of stone and soft fruit. Consumers jump on cherries when they hit the marketplace.

“Cherries are tough,” Mr. Pepperl stated. “It is hard to farm organic cherries — especially late cherries — due to the lack of materials to aid against mildews and flies. Organic cherry production has actually decreased the past two years and probably won’t have large growth. Stemilt is the largest in organic cherries, but expect a premium for this difficult farming task.”

The company is 100-percent organic with its peaches and nectarines. “The quality of organic farming with stone fruit has proven to be a winner,” Mr. Pepperl stated. “We are delivering flavor that is hard to compete with. Our plan is to stay all organic.”

Organic apricot production presents 60 percent of Stemilt’s overall apricot volume.

He was also asked about consumer acceptance of organic commodities and how it is different from 10 or 20 years ago. “The consumer-purchasing segment is growing rapidly,” he commented. “The biggest change has been in the fact that the conventional mainstream grocer is now one of the largest merchants of organic.”

According to Mr. Pepperl, retailers are offering better promotions, bigger displays and better prices. “This was influenced by two factors,” he noted. “One is the major focus that center store has had on organic grocery items. And two is the increase in supply that has gotten closer to the demand, which has brought prices closer to the conventional products.”

Even though the gap is closing, Mr. Pepperl went on to say that this price spread is important and “will need to always exist because of the cost and risk factors involved in good organic farming.”

Organic production can be a challenge. “On some items it is getting easier as more research is being developed. And storages are more modern,” Mr. Pepperl said. “However, there are limits as you see with organic cherries. Organic pears are an item Stemilt dominates on. But pears remain a hard item to farm. We will continue to farm organic pears, but the premium will be larger than on apples to make it sustainable.”

Although Mr. Pepperl said that organic production may be experiencing a minor plateau, he is optimistic about future prospects. “We will watch the market catch up with our production, and then most likely begin a new phase of production,” he stated. “We are mostly tweaking production of items now for the ideal mix.”