Making the business a priority

Photos Courtesy of Stennes Orchards.
Rainier cherries at Stennes Orchards

These days more than ever before, farmers have to be businesspeople as well as farmers, says Keith Stennes, a third-generation grower of tree fruits in the Methow Valley in the state of Washington. The family has been farming in the area since Stennes’ grandfather planted the first apple trees on his 160-acre homestead in 1894.

“I’ve seen so many growers my age who were very good horticulturalists and good growers, who couldn’t get through hard times with farming,” he says. “A lot failed. You have to be a horticulturalist, but you have to be a businessman first.”

Stennes has added numerous orchards to the farm since he began managing it in 1968. The family now owns 150 acres of orchards and leases about 100 acres. They’re spread out over about 50 miles in two valleys in the Cascade Mountain range. The Methow River flows through the orchards in the Methow River Valley, and the Okanogan River runs through part of the orchard in the Okanogan Valley. Pine trees provide shade for the endangered steelhead and bull trout along much of the riverfront. There is also a spawning area for Chinook salmon.

A few years ago, his twin sons, Mark and Kevin, joined Stennes.

“My boys showed an interest in agriculture when they were young,” says Stennes, who has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics. “I told them back then that they were welcome to come into agriculture, but they needed business degrees.”

Both Kevin and Mark graduated from the Washington Tree Fruit Program, and they both have bachelor’s degrees in business. Kevin has an additional computer science degree. That education got them well-established and helped them make industry contacts, which open doors that are unimaginable, Stennes says.

Keith, who focuses on marketing and advises on fruit production management, continues to attend seminars. “You can’t rest on the skill level you have,” he says.

The orchards

As general manager of the orchards, Mark oversees the horticultural practices as well as the budgeting, planning, cost analysis, organic certification and employee safety. They grow 22 varieties of fruit, including 115 acres of pears, 60 acres of cherries, 65 acres of apples, 15 acres of pluots and 5 acres of plums. In all, 65 to 70 percent is organic, he says.

Mark and Kevin with their TWIN S cherry label
Keith with Stennes Orchards Rainier cherries in a Seattle supermarket

On the leased land, they grow older varieties of fruit, most of it by conventional methods. Most of the leases are for two or three years only, Mark says, because they don’t want to be committed long-term in case the labor supply decreases.

Ninety percent of their own land is organic, and they grow niche varieties of fruit, which gives them an edge in marketing, he says. They constantly experiment with new varieties and different growing methods. They’re growing organic pluots and pears and are trying out two new varieties of cherries, Santina and Early Robin. The family is one of only two growers they know of who are growing Amber Jewel plums organically. They’ve been nursing them along for seven years now.

“We’ve found out they’re hard to set a crop,” Mark says. “We’re stubborn. We’ve put so much money into them over the years; we’re going to try a few more years.”

Other growers are having the same problem, he says, and they suspect it’s related to pollination. Amber Jewels have a small flower, so the standard honeybee might not be able to pollinate them. The trees are surrounded by apple orchards, which might be competing with them, or there may be a small window when their pollen is viable.

They’ve also been experimenting with different growing methods, including growing high-density organic Bartlett pears on trellises. They’ve been happy with the results, Mark says, and are going to try planting them closer.

Land management

Stennes Orchards was first runner-up in the 2006 Vim Wright Stewardship Awards, largely because of their use of micro-mist sprinklers and cover crops to prevent erosion, as well as pest-control materials.

They use pheromones to keep codling moths from mating, and organic sprays, including oils and sulfur. “They aren’t a big hammer as in conventional orchards,” Mark says.

In 2005, they set loose their first batch of lady beetles—500,000 of them—against an outbreak of black cherry aphids, and they’ve been using them ever since, Mark says. They’ve made a few discoveries along the way. For example, he says, they’re more effective when they’re used at the first sign of a problem, and lady beetles seem to like being in pluot trees best. And, when they’re set loose at night they’re less likely to fly off to a neighboring orchard.

In the organic orchards, they add fish products and chicken feather meal to the valleys’ naturally fertile soil. Chicken compost comes in huge truckloads, Mark says. They also spray foliar nutrients, including boron, zinc, calcium and seaweed extract, on the trees.

Almost all their irrigation has been converted to micro-sprinklers. They use about a third as much water per acre as they did about 20 years ago. They’re down to between .4 and .8 GPM instead of 2.5 to 3 gallons. They aren’t just saving water, Mark says, there’s also less leaching of nutrients—and of money.

The farm employs as many as 300 pickers throughout the growing season, but no more than 150 at a time. It has 10 full-time employees. The farm values its employees, Kevin says. “We can have all the great ideas in the world, but without them, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Cascade Crest Organics

While a lot of the farm’s produce still goes to packagers who sell under their own labels, the family has begun marketing their organic fruit under the Cascade Crest Organics label, says Kevin. This allows them to be more active and in control of packaging and sales. Pacific Organic Produce does most of the packing, using Cascade Crest’s specs.

Cascade Crest produce sells in Whole Foods and other retail stores in the Seattle area. The farm also delivers fruit to a CSA, which delivers fruit to about 4,000 homes every week around the Seattle area and about 1,500 around Portland.

They also have longer-term sales and marketing plans.

The future

They’re opening a new retail store, The Homestead, this spring at the confluence of the Methow and Columbia rivers.

“It’s taken the fruit stand a little further,” Kevin says.

Having their own store will give them even more control over sales, as well as a little more profit margin, he says. It will have fresh fruit in season, seven or eight months of the year. Year-round, the store will carry coffee, tea, homemade fudge, homemade ice cream and baked goods that use the Stennes’ organic fruit.

They’ve also become part owners in Homemade Baby, an organic baby food manufacturer based in Los Angeles that started in 2005. Homemade Baby uses the farm’s apples and pears, as well as fruit from other growers in the Wenatchee area. Their products are in 400 (and growing) stores across the country, mainly Whole Foods.

It’s the only company that sells fresh, refrigerated baby food. “That’s what got us in on it,” Kevin says. “It’s a unique process.”

All three know the importance of trying new ventures. There are cycles for every business, Stennes says, and you have to constantly reposition yourself to stay on the cutting edge. You have to look ahead three, four, five years, and try to anticipate what will happen.

“You’ll make mistakes,” he says, “but you’re more apt to have the opportunity to stay in. If you don’t do it, you’ll be out of business.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.