This year’s cherry harvest is a special one for my family, and the entire Stemilt Growers team. Not only is our company celebrating its 50th year anniversary, but the Mathison family is also marking an important milestone – our 100th year of farming cherries. As you can imagine, things were done much differently a century ago, including the ways in which we harvested cherries. In this post, we’ll look back at the last 100 years of cherry harvest in order to show you how Stemilt came to be, and how the harvesting practices for cherries have evolved through the years.
In this first photo, you’re looking at our family’s very first orchard (left) on Stemilt Hill circa 1919. My family homesteaded 160 acres in this high-elevation region of Washington State in the late 1800s and began growing fruit here around 1914. On the right, you’ll see a photo from today. This is one of my father’s (Kyle Mathison) high-elevation orchards, which is located above Stemilt Hill at 2,500 to 3,200 feet above sea level. Amigos Orchards is home to the latest fresh cherries in Washington State, and a truly unique place to farm cherries. We’ll harvest cherries here this year starting in mid August.
Though the setting of our family’s cherry harvest is relatively similar as a century ago with many family cherry orchards remaining on Stemilt Hill, our cherry harvest practices are not. In the 1950s, cherry harvest and shipping practices in the area looked drastically different. Back then, cows were milked in the morning and cherries were picked in the afternoon before being driven to town after dinner in unrefrigerated trucks. The local cooperative marketed our fruit. They would load cherries onto a railcar, ship them to terminal markets out east, and then sell them on delivery. Unlike today, most of the railcars were not refrigerated, leaving the spoilage factor for perishable cherries very high. You might recall that my grandfather, Tom Mathison, earned a mere $88 for his 100 ton cherry crop in 1958, and set out the next year looking to improve his cherry business in order to make his farm sustainable for generations to come. Below are two photos from 1960 when our family’s first plant, located on Stemilt Hill, was being built, along with two photos from a recent harvest. My father, Kyle Mathison, is pictured.
In the 1960s, grandpa put the knowledge he learned from other growing regions to work. He began harvesting cherries in the early morning hours when the temperature was cool, hydrocooled the cherries prior to packing, and kept them cold before shipment. He also constructed our family’s first packing facility, located on Stemilt Hill, in order to pack cherries himself. He followed the railcar out east to see how his cherries would arrive this time around, and was satisfied to see them “shining like rubies” at the market, and selling for sustainable prices as well.
Today, cherry harvest continues to look similar to 50 years ago, and is still based on the standards Tom put into place back then. We still pick cherries in the early morning hours while the temperatures are cool and hydrocooling remains a key part of our harvesting practices. Today, we’re able to hydrocool fruit almost immediately after they are harvested by loading bins of cherries into mobile, or on-site, hydrocoolers. This brings down the pulp temperature of the fruit and starts the vital cold chain process for cherries early on. We now utilize refrigerated trucks for any hauling of cherries – whether it be from the farm to our packing facilities – or our facilities to your grocery stores.
One thing hasn’t changed over the past century – sweet cherries are still just as perishable as they were a century ago. Today, we continue to do all that we can to maintain the freshness and flavor of sweet Stemilt cherries. After all, the journey to World Famous Cherries is about doing a lot of little things right. I know I can speak for our family when I say that we’ve been absolutely blessed to be able to learn a lot about these little things over the past 100 years in order to continue raising the bar when it comes to the quality of sweet Stemilt cherries.