ROW AFTER ROW of harvest-ready
apple trees line the roads into Quincy,
Washington—so much so that, despite sim-
ple driving directions, it’s easy to get lost
among the orchards. Once I found the proper
orchard, it was clear I was in the right place
on account of the white-and-green signs that
read: “;;;;;;; ;;;;—;; ;;; ;;;;;.”
The Mathison family, who have been
farming in Eastern Washington for 100
years, owns and operates Stemilt Growers.
With the help of its grower partners, the
Douglas family of Douglas Fruit, Stemilt’s
apples account for 8 percent of the state’s
apple sales. Stemilt owns both organic and
conventional orchards, and it also markets
fruit for local, independent family orchards.
Marketplace opportunity is among the
top reasons food producers go into organics.
West Mathison, president of Stemilt
Growers, says that as the gap between conventional and organic food prices widens,
many farmers will grow organic to earn
more, since organic products are typically
priced higher. Stemilt began converting its
crops in 1989; currently, 22 percent (and
growing) of its orchards are organic.
As we walk along the rows of plump
organic Fuji and Gala apples (which I got to
taste fresh from the tree), Mathison explains
that for an orchard to be considered
organic, it cannot be treated with pesticides
or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredi-
ents or with organic matter dervied from
sewage sludge. GMOs are prohibited, as is
irradiation. There must be buffers between
organic and conventional orchards, in addi-
tion to long-term soil management plans.
In all organic operations, keeping strict
records of treatments to the land (or animals) is key; all companies are inspected by
USDA-approved certifying agencies to
ensure that they meet the standards.
Costco members often ask why more
organic apples aren’t available. Mathison
explains, “It’s difficult to raise an organic
orchard from the get-go.” It takes four to five
years for a single apple tree (whether conventional or organic) to produce commer-cial-grade apples. Trees raised organically
from the start can take longer to produce
large quantities of fruit, and it’s often difficult to control for some of the biggest
threats, namely fire blight and mildew.
To solve this issue, a common practice
is starting an orchard as conventional,
when the trees are most vulnerable, and
then converting it to organic, which takes
three years (see sidebar). Mathison adds
that Stemilt’s conventional orchards are not
grown from genetically modified seeds or
rootstock, which would disqualify them
from being converted.
Stemilt’s orchards, many of which are 30
years old, are kept in great health. But if an
infestation occurs, there are several techniques to combat pests organically. Two
common practices Stemilt uses are mating
disruption, which scents the orchard with
pheromones to derail a bug’s reproduction,
and using beneficial predators, such as lady-
bugs and syrphid flies, which eat aphids.
If all other methods fail, the USDA has a
short list of approved synthetic pesticides.
And if those approved synthetics do not
work, Stemilt will use conventional methods
to save the trees (and sell the fruit as conve-
tional), as letting an orchard go would result
in a catastrophic profit loss for years to come.
Despite the challenges of raising organic
apples, Stemilt Growers is enthusiastic about
bringing its biggest and best fruit to the
organics market. ;
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 37
Headquarters: Wenatchee, Washington
Products at Costco: Tree fruits and several
varieties of organic apples, including
Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji, Red Delicious, Granny
Smith, Jonagold, Pink Lady, Swee Tango®
West Mathison (left),
president of Stemilt
Growers, and grower
partner David Douglas.