Journey through the years to find out how Stemilt came to be and some of the key moments in our company’s history.
1893: Our Homestead Roots
Stemilt’s company roots run deep. In 1893, the Mathison family homesteaded 160 acres on Stemilt Hill overlooking the Columbia River and the town of Wenatchee, Washington. The original homestead was a subsistence farm that produced staples for the family and enough wheat to sell and sustain a living. In 1909, Thomas Cyle Mathison became a founding partner of the Stemilt Creek Irrigation Company, helping to bring water to his land and setting the stage for the family’s first orchards to be planted.
1914: First Orchard Plantings
With its rolling hills and fertile soils, Stemilt Hill reminded Thomas of his homeland, Scotland. Because of that, and based on the locale’s plentiful water supply and mild desert climate with deep snow in the winter, he knew it would be the perfect place to grow tree fruits. In 1914, he planted the family’s first 10 acres of apples, pears and cherries.
1926: The Second Generation
Over the next decade, Chris Mathison, Thomas’ son, took over the family farm. He gradually expanded the business with new orchard plantings, and along with his wife, A.J., raised a family. In June 1926, A.J. gave birth to a surprise set of twins, a girl named Helen, and a boy named Thomas Kyle, or Tom. Tom grew up working on the orchard in between going to school and playing football.
1947: Young Tom Leads the Farm
In 1947, Tom returned home from serving in World War II and resumed work on the farm. His father, Chris, died in a tragic farm accident that year, leaving young Tom as the leader of the family farm. The family persevered and kept the farm going – albeit barely – over the next decade. Tom married Lorraine Goldy in 1950, and the couple quickly started a family, with Bob born in 1951, Kyle in 1952 and Lavonne in 1953.
1958: The Cherry Crop Disaster
The fruit business was a challenging one to be in in the 1950s. One year it would be Mother Nature causing crop disasters, while in others, the market wouldn’t perform as anyone had hoped. However, no year was as difficult for cherries as 1958. That year, Tom returned a mere $88 on his 100-ton cherry crop.
For years, the Mathisons had relied solely on the local cooperative to market their fruit. The cooperative would load ripe, freshly harvested cherries into railcars, pack them with ice, and ship the fruit to terminal markets in major U.S. cities to sell on delivery. Not surprisingly, this technique caused high spoilage in perishable cherries.
The 1958 crop disaster was a turning point for Tom. If it weren’t for his wife’s business of selling eggs and cream and painting houses, the family would have been forced to sell their orchards to service their bank note. Lorraine laid it out clearly for Tom: “Figure out what is wrong and fix it, or go get a job to support this family.”
Tom chose to fix the problem.
1964: Stemilt Growers Is Founded
In 1959, Tom followed his cherries to the East Coast and saw just how poorly they made the journey. The next year, he traveled to California to study how cherries were harvested there. He returned home, changed his harvest practices, and began packing his own cherries in a small-scale facility that he constructed. In his first year as a grower-packer, Tom followed his cherries to the same market, where they sold for $40 per 20-pound box. A huge turnaround!
The following year, several neighbors asked Tom to pack their cherries. In 1964, Tom founded a fruit-packing business, calling it Stemilt Growers.
1975: Tom Builds Olds Station Facility
Stemilt’s success in the 1960s led to continued expansion. In 1975, Tom built a state-of-the-art apple-, pear- and cherry-packing and storage facility at Olds Station in Wenatchee, and moved the company headquarters from Stemilt Hill to that location. Tom’s sons, Bob and Kyle, became involved in the farming side of the business, while Tom managed packing operations, and traveled the world promoting the Stemilt brand.
2005: Tom Transfers Presidency to Grandson West
Through hard work and persistence, Tom helped Stemilt grow from a small packing company to the leading tree-fruit-growing, -packing and -marketing operation it is today. As he looked toward retirement, Tom knew he wanted Stemilt to remain family-owned and -operated. In 2005, at the age of 79, he passed on the company presidency to his grandson, West Mathison (Kyle’s oldest son). West grew up working in the orchards and held numerous roles at Stemilt before becoming president.
2014: Stemilt Celebrates 50-year Anniversary
Stemilt celebrated its 50th year as a family-owned and -operated fruit company in 2014. Looking into the future, West is working to ensure Stemilt upholds its legacy of flavor and innovation that generations before him put into place.
History of Innovation
1959: Tom Mathison Adopts New Cherry Practices
After a disastrous cherry crop in 1958, Tom Mathison followed the railcar with his cherries to the East Coast, where he quickly realized the cherries looked great when they left his orchards, but lost all luster and firmness by the time they made the trip East. Tom returned home ready to install cherry harvest practices that would give him more control of the quality of cherries that he took to market.
1960: First Packing Warehouse for Stemilt
To improve cherry quality, Tom Mathison began construction on the first Stemilt fruit-packing warehouse atop Stemilt Hill near Wenatchee, Washington. The Stemilt Hill facility was the hub of Stemilt operations until the 1980s. Today, the Hill facility is used for receiving and hydrocooling Stemilt cherries.
1964: Controlled Atmosphere Storage Arrives at Stemilt
Stemilt opened its first controlled atmosphere (CA) storage facility atop Stemilt Hill. These CA rooms help maintain the quality of Stemilt apples and pears beyond harvest, and also keep sweet cherries cold prior to shipment.
1975: State-of-the-Art Olds Station Facility Completed
Stemilt completed construction on a state-of-the-art apple-, pear- and cherry-packing, storage and shipping facility. The Olds Station facility is located in Wenatchee, Washington, and became the new headquarters for Stemilt.
1982: Stemilt’s Tom Mathison Becomes the First to Sticker Fruit
Believing that people should know who grew their fruit, Stemilt founder Tom Mathison led the industry by becoming the first to place stickers on apples. The stickers he used had the Stemilt logo on them. Years later, price look-up (PLU), stickers became the norm in produce. PLUs have a 4- or 5-digit number and help cashiers ring up fresh items.
1988: First Stemilt Cherries Arrive in Japan
Stemilt upgraded its Olds Station facility in order to fumigate cherries for export. This allowed Stemilt to export cherries overseas for the first time. Stemilt’s first export shipment of cherries arrived in Japan in 1988.
1989: Sustainability Before It Was a Buzzword
Stemilt became an early adopter in sustainability when founder Tom Mathison launched the Responsible Choice® program in 1989. He helped bring integrated pest management techniques to orchards to reduce pesticide use. Tom also added a ladybug to the Stemilt logo to show the company’s commitment to the environment through Responsible Choice®.
1989: Stemilt Is the First to Invest in R&D
Stemilt became the first tree fruit grower and packer with a dedicated research & development team. The R&D team conducts private research on everything from fruit storage to new varieties and packing technologies. This investment makes Stemilt an R&D leader and partner to university and outside researchers.
1989: Stemilt Cherries Are the First to Ship in Bags
Always the innovator, Stemilt founder Tom Mathison became the first person to ship cherries in bags. His use of random-weight bags transformed the cherry industry, and soon, bagged cherries were the norm. This innovation was the first of many grab-and-go packages that Stemilt would introduce.
1997: Stemilt Apples Arrive in Japan
After more than a decade of exporting cherries to Japan, the market finally opened for apples. Stemilt was among the first to ship Washington-grown apples to Japan.
2000: Stemilt Invests in NIR (Near Infrared) Fruit Imaging
After several years of research and development, nondestructive sweetness testing based on near-infrared technology (NIR) is put on Stemilt fruit-packing lines. The new technology transformed the industry by capturing photos of the fruit at rapid speeds to provide information about the sugar levels and overall quality of the fruit being packed.
2006: Stemilt Launches Category Management Program
Stemilt launched a category management program called FruitTracker™. The FruitTracker program quickly became an industry leader in data, analysis, reporting and category planning.
2006: Stemilt’s Entire Crop of Peaches & Nectarines Goes Organic
The Douglas family and Stemilt began transitioning the company’s entire crop of peaches and nectarines to organic production. Three years later, the fruit was certified organic and started selling under the Artisan Organics™ label.
2011: Lil Snappers™ Kid Size Fruits
Stemilt launched Lil Snappers™ kid-sized fruits to the world. Premium-quality apples and pears sized just for kids and packed in convenient pouch bags made Lil Snappers a huge hit. Sunkist citrus joined the Lil Snappers line in 2012.
2013: Stemilt Debuts New, High-Tech Cherry Line
Stemilt was the first in Washington state to bring electronic sizing and defect sorting technology to cherries. The state-of-the-art line is located at the Euclid Street facility in Wenatchee, and features new technology that mechanically sorts cherries for color, firmness and defects. In 2014 and 2016, Stemilt added three additional electronic cherry lines at its facilities in California and Washington.
2014: New Commit-to-Pack Apple Line Arrives at Olds Station
Stemilt debuts one of the longest apple sizers in the world in a brand-new line at its Olds Station facility. The high-tech line is equipped with the latest generation of external-defect and internal-quality sorting technology to electronically size and sort apples.
2014: Stemilt Launches Fresh Blenders™ Apples
The new brand intended to provide shoppers with a grab-and-go bag of apples meant for juicing or blending into smoothies at home. Fresh Blenders™ apples come in sweet or tart flavors, with multiple apple variety options for each.
2015: Stemilt Introduces Skylar Rae® Cherries
Stemilt introduced a new cherry variety, Tip Top cultivar, under the Skylar Rae® cherry brand. The bicolored cherry was discovered by chance, and features a crisp and juicy bite and the sweetest flavor profile of any cherry variety grown commercially. The cherry entered the market under its own PLU number, and joined dark-sweet cherries and Rainiers as the third cherry in the produce department.