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'Dynamic duo' continue family tradition at Cascade Crest Organics

From the time he was 14, Kevin Stennes knew he wanted to make his living working on the family farm. So did his younger brother Mark  well, younger by nine minutes that is.

Like many identical twins, the 23-year-old brothers have many things in common besides looks, including the same hobbies and even the same careers.

Along with their father, Keith, the Stennes brothers  the fourth generation of Stenneses to farm in Washington state's Methow Valley  recently started Cascade Crest Organics, a marketing subsidiary for the organic produce grown at Stennes Orchards Inc., their familys 180-acre farm.

Though they literally grew up in the orchard, the Stennes brothers said that they were not expected to carry on the family tradition.

"We definitely had the option not to go on the farm," Kevin Stennes said. We saw what our dad was doing  how he had the ability to be his own boss  and a lot of people dont get that option. That, along with the wide variation of duties every day, was greatly appealing. We started the direct marketing of our organic niche varieties to provide one more income so we both could be involved in the family business.

We started with horticultural odd jobs when we were around 12 or 13 years old, Mark Stennes continued. Our dad realized early that he didnt want us just to be 'slave labor. He had us meet with a lawyer and a CPA so we would be challenged in all aspects of the business.

Kevin said that his dad wanted his sons to work as hard as everyone else before they would eventually take control of the family business, not to just have it handed to them. It gave us responsibility, that there were consequences to the choices we have made, he said. This gave us the confidence to make the decisions we have made now.

In addition to working on the farm, Kevin and Mark have each spent seven years in college to help better their business skills. They both have associates degrees in tree fruit production and general business transfer degrees from Wenatchee Valley College. Kevin has an additional associates degree in business information technology from Wenatchee Valley College and is currently finishing a bachelors degree in business administration and marketing from Central Washington University. Mark has a bachelors degree in management and organization with a minor in supply chain management from Central Washington University.

Even though their father started an organic program at Stennes Orchards in 1997, the conditions for starting a marketing company did not present themselves until last summer. We didnt have the logistics and manpower until last summer, and when we did, we decided to put all of our energy into it and go for it, Kevin said.

What resulted was Cascade Crest Organics, where Kevin serves as director of marketing, packing and shipping, while Mark serves as operations manager and is in charge of orchard production, a position he also holds at Stennes Orchards.

Mark said that they started their business with a small pollinizer crop of Santa Rosa plums packed and marketed under the Cascade Crest Organics label. We had fewer than 100 boxes, but a small wholesaler purchased the whole crop, he said. We have had 10 times those sales this year.

Sales have increased due to the fact that Cascade Crest Organics line has grown to include six varieties of pears, two varieties of cherries, three varieties of pluots and two varieties of apples.

We just got permission to produce an organic line of Amber Jewel plums, but it will be three years before the first crop, Mark noted.

While starting small, Kevin said he plans to work on building the companys sales as much as possible through its web site, www.cascadecrestorganics.org. We want to grow our direct marketing to help cut out as many middlemen as possible so we can control where our items go and the price as much as we can day to- day, he said. We feel much more confident after our first year and want to develop a high-quality reputation with our buyers.

Mark noted that he is currently trying to find niche varieties that are commercially available and put an organic twist on them, especially soft fruit.

Though at times it has posed some difficulty, both Stennes brothers said that their young age has been well received by most in the produce industry. Not a lot of young people are going into the produce industry, and I think by starting young, it has given us a jump start, Mark said. A lot of industry veterans have told me they wish more young people were going into the industry.

It should come as no surprise that Kevin and Mark said that their greatest challenge so far has been starting their new company, something that can be difficult for even the most seasoned business person, let alone a 23-year-old.

Kevin said that from a marketing perspective, building the relationships necessary to make the business successful has required the most effort. Starting relationships with people you dont know has been a lot of fun but a real challenge, he said. Many of the people we first started out calling are now calling us, and that has been rewarding.

On the production end, labor and regulations have been a challenge as well, Mark added. The weather is another factor, but that is out of my control.

While they put in long hours to keep their company successful, the Stennes brothers still find time to pursue their shared hobbies, which include fishing and playing music; Kevin plays bass and Mark plays guitar in a musical group at a local church.

Most of our interests are mutual, and our main hobby is fishing for steelhead and salmon on the Columbia River, Kevin said. We bought a boat with our dad so we could go fishing when we wanted. We also go fishing for lake trout in March at Flathead Lake in western Montana.

The brothers still live on the family homestead in Pateros, WA, and spend a lot of their free time with their family, which they both described as very close. Kevin has been married for two years, and he and his wife, Jennifer, have an eight-month-old son named Cadin. Though Mark is still single, he has a girlfriend named Robin.

Be it growing their new business or continuing their family tradition, Kevin and Mark Stennes seem to have a bright future ahead of them.