I love that we have been offered so many opportunities to connect to the food we eat as “food bloggers”. Most recently, Mary and I were invited to tour Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, Washington. What I expected was a visit to an orchard (like the one I visited in my Girl Scout days) and a tour of a warehouse where they cleaned, packed and shipped the apples. Oh, boy – it turned out to be SO MUCH MORE!
I couldn’t believe the scale of the business they do and everything involved in getting an apple from orchard to market. Washington State grows 60% of all the apples in the USA. As one of our state’s biggest fruit companies, Stemilt processes, stores and ships apples to our local stores and to countries around the world. Value of Washington apples sold as fresh or processed product is estimated at about $2.5 billion a year! It’s a very big business.
We started our tour with our guides, Jeff (Director of Fieldstaff) and Brianna (Communications Manager) at a nearby contract-orchard owned by Bill and Laurie Wacker. Bill and Laurie were busy over-seeing the picking and sorting of Red Delicious apples. There is a labor shortage in the apple industry right now, so everyone was working extremely hard to get the job done.
Next, Jeff took us to one of the four fruit-packing facilities owned by Stemilt in Washington. That’s where the samples are pulled for testing. Sample boxes are then sent to the lab for analysis, so guess where we went next? The lab!
It never occurred to me that apples needed to be scientifically tested in their journey from orchard to market, but they do! Here’s why: apples have a limited growing season, but the world demand for apples is year-round. To meet this demand, fruit companies slow down the ripening process (conversion of starch to sugar), by putting apples into “hybernation” or controlled atmosphere.
They test the apples for starch content by spraying the cut surface of the apple with iodine. If the surface turns completely black when put under the heat lamp, the apple is still very starchy, and it can be stored in controlled atmosphere for a long time (i.e. up to nine months). The firmness and sugar content of the apples are also tested and taken into consideration when determining how long the apples can be stored. All of this allows Stemilt to maintain the highest level of quality, while providing the world with delicious apples year-round. Last year, Stemilt tested 250,000 individual apples during harvest to ensure that all crops got to market at the right time.
Stemilt (a Native American word for “foothills) is a family-owned company that is proud of their heritage and the products they bring to market. The roots of the company trace back to 1893 when the first generation of Mathisons homesteaded 160 acres of Stemilt Hill. Today, Stemilt Growers is the nation’s largest supplier of sweet cherries and organic tree fruits, as well as a key supplier of Washington-grown apples, pears and stone fruit.
You can learn more about Stemilt Growers in this video:
One of the first people we met upon entering the corporate offices was West Mathison, Stemilt’s President and great-great-grandson of Thomas Cyle Mathison, who had planted the first apple, pear and cherry orchards over 100 years ago. West shared with us that one of his favorite parts of his job is judging the Apple Pie contest at the annual Washington State Apple Blossom Festival. Tough job, right?! A funny story: in a blind tasting, the judges gave his own grandmother a second place ribbon a few years ago.
I’m guessing they’d award Best Crust AND Best Filling to Helen’s Apple Pie! Stay tuned for that video and recipe…