Follow the journey that every Stemilt apple takes to get from our orchards in Washington State to your table. Apples are harvested by hand from August to November, and packed with care every day of the year. Stemilt strives to produce world famous apples each and every day so that you have the best experience with our fruits.
Where We Farm World-Famous Apples
Washington State is known around the world for producing high-quality apples, and we’re fortunate to grow Stemilt apples in the state’s very best locales. Our apple orchards are located in:
- Tri Cities: Located in south central Washington, this is a large apple-producing region. Apple orchards sit on lower elevations near the confluence of the mighty Columbia River and two of its biggest tributaries, the Snake and Yakima rivers. Tri Cities is an ideal place for apples that like the heat, such as Pink Lady® brand apples.
- Columbia Basin: Just a bit north of the Tri Cities region, the Columbia Basin is a widespread growing district for apples. Orchards are located in the towns of Quincy, George and Mattawa. Many of the apple orchards in this region are modern, high-density plantings of new varieties like Piñata®, SweeTango® and Honeycrisp apples.
- Wenatchee Valley: Known as the “Apple Capital of the World,” Wenatchee is the hub for Washington apples. The arid climate, plentiful water resources, and four true growing seasons lend well to producing high-quality apples. And of course, we pack and ship the majority of Stemilt apples here.
- Chelan/Okanogan: This small but widespread growing district stretches north of Wenatchee to the Canadian border. Lake Chelan offers orchards cooler temperatures during the heat of the summer. Okanogan’s shorter growing days and cool temperatures also produce high-quality apples.
Planting an Apple Orchard
- Apples love an arid climate, volcanic soils and plentiful water supply, which are all the attributes of the ground that Stemilt farms.
- Selecting the right orchard locations for slope to the sunshine, good air drainage with no frost pockets, and low pest pressures is important.
- Choosing the correct rootstock and apple varieties to grow in each location is key. For example, Granny Smith apples do well in warmer locations with an earlier spring, so that’s where we grow them.
- Plant with specific and tight spacing to maximize the land with rows just wide enough to get equipment through the orchard.
- Grafting scions or fruit wood to existing tree trunks can change the variety of a tree. However, the previous rootstock and spacing needs to be evaluated first. The time from grafting to first crop can be as soon as 2 years on a grafted orchard versus 4 on a new planting.
- Pollinator trees such as crab apples or rows of another variety also need placement to cross-pollinate the new orchard. Apples will pollinate with other apple varieties to become fertile for fruit production.
- A season-long water source needs to be part of any planting plan to establish the irrigation system that will be the lifeline to the orchard. Sprinklers are usually high impact, drip or emitters.
How Apple Orchards Are Cared for Through the Seasons
- Irrigation lines are set and repaired as needed.
- During apple blossom (or bloom), the orchard is monitored for cold, which can result in a loss of potential crop. We run windmills to push the cold air from the bottom of the orchards away from the trees and blossoms. We will also run sprinklers that cause water to freeze to ice. As it melts, it gives off energy in the form of heat.
- Beehives are placed throughout the orchards to promote pollination.
- Water monitoring in the orchards is a continuous process all summer long.
- Orchards are pruned where and when needed, in addition to what was previously done in the winter.
- Blossom or apple thinning is done to ensure that the crop load is not too heavy, which helps maintain good fruit sizing. This can be done by hand or with sulfurs.
- Many growers are also busy with cherry harvest or stone fruit harvest during the summer season.
- Apple harvest is the biggest part of the fall farming process. It begins in mid-August and runs all the way until the first frost arrives in early November.
- Compost is applied in late fall right before leaves drop from trees.
- Orchards go dormant and will rest, which is important for fruit vigor and quality the following season.
- This is when extensive pruning gets the trees staged for spring sits under the snow and begins to mix with the soils and prepare.
Fruit Season Kicks Off with a Flower Show
- Apple blossom in Washington State takes place at the same time pear blossom does, with full bloom typically running from April 22 to May 8.
- Southern growing districts bloom before northern growing districts because of latitude.
- The apple variety also dictates bloom time. Interestingly, Pink Lady® is the first variety to bloom, but the last to harvest.
- Apple blossoms are white with a noticeable pink tinge and bright yellow center
- Just like other tree fruits, the blossoms for a new crop of apples actually develop during harvest the prior fall as short bud spurs.
- These bud spurs occur on branches that are at least one year old and near leaves and stems of current fruit. The new buds become visible after the leaves drop in late fall.
- Growers may thin blossoms from trees to balance the crop load and ensure peak fruit sizing.
- Apples and pears bloom at the same time in Washington State. They bloom after our cherries, peaches, nectarines and apricots.
- Read more about apple blossom on our blog, The Stem.
Apple King Bloom
- A branch of an apple tree produces a cluster of six blossoms when it blooms. The central blossom is called the king bloom. It is the first to open and very desirable to growers.
- The apple produced from pollinated king blooms is often larger than the apples that surround it. Growers may thin the smaller apples during the summer to make room on the tree for the king bloom to grow.
Protecting Bloom from Springtime Weather
Apple blossom is an important time in the orchard, and spring weather and frost is dangerous to blossoms. The following is how our growers protect apple bloom in an orchard:
- Frost protection often comes from wind machines that have blades spinning above the orchard.
- The movement of air by the fan blades prevents stagnant cold air pockets from settling at the tree level and killing the blossoms that bear the crop.
- A single wind machine can protect up to 10 acres of orchards.
- The fan is typically powered by an industrial engine delivering 100 horsepower or more.
- Overhead irrigation is another common method of frost/freeze protection.
- Heat is released as water changes to ice, which keeps the orchards warmer than freezing. If supplied at an adequate rate, the water will keep the temperature of the plant at or near 32° F, which prevents frost damage.
- Advantages of overhead irrigation include: lower operating cost, convenience of operation, and multiple uses including drought prevention and heat suppression in the warmer months.
Apples Need Cross-Pollination to Grow
Just like bees, cross-pollinators are needed to grow apples. That’s because most apples are self-incompatible and need two pollen sources for successful pollination. There are a few self-fertile varieties that are capable of self-pollination, although they tend to carry larger crops if they are cross-pollinated. There is also a small number of triploid varieties, which have no viable pollen (for themselves or other trees), so they must have cross-pollinators.
Growers plant pollenizer trees among the tree they are growing for a crop in order to ensure pollination success. Crab apples are common pollenizers in apple trees. Compatible varieties are also used.
Pollination with Bees
- Bees are essential in growing new apples, as they pollinate the blossoms on apple trees each spring. Growers set out beehives when flowers just start to open. The hives are usually rented and kept on location for 4-5 days.
- Bees prefer to forage within 300 feet of their hive, so there are usually 1-2 beehives per acre of apple orchards during bloom. Bees quickly work to transfer pollen from the anthers of a flower to the stigma of the same or other flowers to set or pollenize apple blossoms. After pollination set occurs, a new apple develops and begins to grow.
- Cold, wet or windy weather can cause poor pollination and eventually reduce the expected apple crop in an orchard.
When We Harvest Apples
- Apple harvest begins in mid-August with varieties like Gala and SweeTango®, and wraps up in late October with Pink Lady®. Every variety has its own unique start and finish date.
- Our Stemilt horticultural team uses multiple tests and indicators to determine if the apples are ready to pick. The date and weather when blooms first develop has a lot to do with predicting harvest timing.
- Apples are harvested at different maturities to meet the timing for packing. Apples for immediate consumption are picked at full maturity with lots of sugars and low starch reserves. Apples that are to be stored in controlled atmosphere to be packed for winter or later are picked with higher levels of starch, which convert to perfect sugars when the fruit is ready to pack.
How Apples Are Harvested
- Hand-picking remains the primary harvest method in Washington State.
- To pick an apple, a crew member will lift the apple and twist it slightly. Apples that are ready for harvest separate with ease from the branch and retain the stem.
- Crew members will clip the stems shorter on certain varieties, like Honeycrisp apples, in order to prevent the stem from puncturing the skin of other apples in the harvest bin.
- Apples are often harvested two to three times from the same tree to keep maturity levels ideal. Apples on the outside of the tree mature faster than the apples within the inner branches of the tree, so they are picked first.
- Harvesting in the orchard is done on the ground, on short industrial steel ladders and on modern harvest platforms that drive into the orchard and hydraulically lift up to the ideal height.
- Apples are picked into a picking bag and then emptied into large bins that are strategically placed throughout the orchard.
- Field sorting for quality is another task in the orchard. Crew members discard any apples that have defects that will not meet quality requirements.
Quality Control and Receiving
- After harvest, bins of fruit are received by Stemilt and taken to a nearby packing or storage facility.
- Quality control is critical for apples, which is why we check the fruit several times. We check apples upon receiving bins, while apples are in controlled atmosphere storage, during apple packing, and prior to shipping boxes of apples to their destination.
- Food safety procedures are a big part of quality control and are included in our Safe Quality Food program.
- Quality control is important in assuring crisp, ripe and delicious apples for you to enjoy.
How Stemilt Apples Are Packed
Stemilt packs apples fresh daily throughout the year in order to deliver the best apples to your stores. Here’s a look at the steps to pack apples:
Step 1: Apple Bin Dump
- The first step is to “dump” a bin of apples onto the packing line. Though it doesn’t sound like it, the dumping process is actually quite gentle, so that fruit is not damaged.
- There are both water-assisted methods and dry dumping, depending on the facility. Apples float in water, and water dumping is our preferred method at Stemilt. It can decrease bruising and abrasions by using chlorinated water to carry delicate apples.
Step 2: Apple Quality Sorting
- The apples go through an initial sorting process to eliminate injured, decayed or defected fruit before any additional handling takes place.
- Experienced sorters use defect charts to guide them through the sorting process. Sorting prevents us from wasting energy by running poor apples through our packing equipment.
Step 3: Apple Washing, Drying and Waxing
- Sorted apples are washed with food-grade soap and then rinsed with chlorinated water to clean orchard dirt and dust from the fruit.
- The clean apples are then dried with a blower and fans to remove any water from the fruit.
- Next, food-grade wax is applied to the clean and dry apples. The apples are brushed with rollers to give them a shiny and fresh appearance. (Organic fruit does not get waxed).
- Research has shown waxing prevents apple moisture loss and slows down its respiration rate. Only a drop or two of wax is needed to give an apple a shiny, protective coating, and help keep its crunch to the very last bite.
Step 4: Apple Sorting, Sizing and Stickering
- Next, apples are sorted by hand again to ensure that only quality fruit makes it in each box.
- The fruit is then sorted for both internal and external quality defects, as well as size. High-definition cameras rapidly take multiple images of every apple.
- The images are relayed to a computer, where software analyzes the images from the camera and sends the fruit to a designated packing lane based its size, grade and color criteria.
- Fruit is stickered with a scannable price look-up (PLU) sticker, which helps cashiers at your grocery store easily ring up the fruit.
Step 5: Apples Are Packed
- Our apples are finally ready to be packed. Apples are packed in bags, clamshells and bulk trays. Then, that type of pack is put into a master carton with a lid, in most cases.
- Both hand packing and automatic packing is done at Stemilt.
- Each finished carton is stamped with important information about the origin of the fruit, the variety, pack date, size, grade and grower number.
- Boxes of fruit are then put onto wooden pallets either by hand or through an automated process. The pallets are put back into cold rooms where they await shipment on refrigerated trucks.
- Apples are packed fresh nearly every day thanks to the wonders of controlled atmosphere storage, which controls the amount of oxygen the fruit lives in.
What Is Controlled Atmosphere Storage?
- Controlled atmosphere (CA) storage is a method that fresh fruit producers use to extend the seasonality of their fruits. It is the reason we can enjoy apples and pears well past harvest.
- CA storage began before World War II in England when farmers discovered their produce kept longer in airtight rooms.
- CA storage is a not a chemical process. It involves keeping temperature, natural gases and humidity at controlled levels.
- Certain varieties of apples can be stored for 12 months in CA, while certain varieties of pears can be stored as long as 10 months.
The Recipe for Fresh Apples & Pears Well After Harvest
- Apples and pears convert starches to sugars by taking in oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide. In sealed CA rooms, this respiratory process is reduced due to the low oxygen levels in the room. The fruit is essentially asleep and the ripening process is on pause.
- Oxygen levels are reduced in CA rooms by infusing nitrogen gas, from the approximate 21% found in the air we breathe down to 1-2%.
- Temperatures in CA rooms are kept at a consistent 32 to 36 ° F with 95% humidity. Carbon dioxide levels are tightly controlled.
- Exact conditions of each room vary based on the apple or pear variety inside.
- We research specifications for each variety, which are then monitored by computers to keep conditions consistent and fruit quality at an optimum condition for each room.
- The length of storage is determined by looking at starch levels in apples and pears at harvest. The higher the starch levels, the longer the fruit can be stored.
- Once a CA room is opened for packing, the fruit wakes from its resting state and the conversion of starches to sugars starts again. By the time the fruit gets to your stores, it is perfectly crisp and full of flavor.
Short-Term Cold Storage
- Another method of cold storage is used in the short term.
- Short-term cold storage is where bins of apples, pears, cherries and summer fruits are put into refrigerated rooms for a short time while they wait to be packed or shipped.
- Short-term cold storage differs from long-term because the rooms are not sealed off and the atmosphere in the room does not change.
- Many apples packed in the fall right after harvest develop better flavors during short-term storage. The acids drop from the fruit in the refrigerated rooms, which brings out the sugars and flavors in the fruit.
Smaller CA Rooms and More of Them
- Apple storage and pear storage CA rooms vary in size from 800 bin capacity to 3,000 bin capacity.
- Stemilt has over 250 storage rooms, most of which are small in size (800 to 1,500 bin capacity).
- Smaller CA rooms allow us to quickly fill and seal rooms at harvest. This allows us to put the fruit to sleep quickly to assure the highest quality later in the season.
- Another advantage of small CA rooms is that we have more flexibility when choosing which rooms to open. Once a room is open, the fruit begins to respire and ripen. Opening small rooms often for packing is ideal for fruit quality.
- A bin of fruit yields an average of 18 cartons of apples and 22 cartons of pears. That means a CA room holds anywhere from 14,400 cartons to 66,000 cartons of fruit.