Borton Fruit turns 100
A fourth generation will honor the family’s values and heritage.
Members of the Borton family currently involved in the business are (left to right): Andy Birley (fourth generation), Katie (Borton) Birley (fourth), John Borton (third), Richard Borton (second), Eric Borton (fourth), Bill Borton (third), Byron Borton (fourth). Inset: Founder Byron Sarver Borton (far right) and three sons (right to left) Byron E., John Richard, and Don, 1940s.
In 1912, Byron Sarver Borton moved to the Yakima Valley from Albany, Oregon, to become a schoolteacher at the Marks School, a one-room schoolhouse just a two-mile horse ride from the 20-acre farm he purchased. Mr. Borton’s tireless work ethic as both a teacher and a farmer were evident to those around him, but little did he know that he was establishing core values that would be integral in transforming the 20-acre farm 100 years later into 6,000 acres of apples, pears, and cherries, growing, storing, packing, and selling more than 7 million boxes of fruit annually.
Richard Borton, one of Byron Sarver’s three sons, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, recalls that from an early age, he learned the values of discipline and hard work. Growing up on the farm, all three Borton Boys—Byron Ervin, Don, and Richard—participated in their share of chores, beginning in grade school. From milking cows to thinning apples and working late nights protecting the orchard from frost with smudge pots, the boys were indoctrinated to the demands of farming at a very early age.
With a work ethic akin to the one modeled by his father, Richard Borton graduated magna cum laude from Washington State University with a degree in electrical engineering, leading him to a promising career with Pacific Power & Light. Richard’s younger brother, Don, graduated from Washington State in the ROTC program. In the wake of World War II, Don was called to duty.
“He was sent overseas and was later tragically killed while on patrol leading his men behind enemy lines on a reconnaissance mission,” Richard said. “It was during the time that Don was away at war that I began to feel the tug on my heart to come back home to the farm to help my father, who was nearing retirement and working too hard. In 1942, I joined my older brother, Byron, and my father in the family farming business.”
Byron supervised the orchard operation while Richard managed warehouse packing and assisted his father with bookkeeping and accounting. In the late 1940s, a major fire destroyed most of the packing house. While the fire was a setback, they rebuilt and eventually expanded to more than 250 acres and more than 250,000 boxes of fruit annually.
It was at this time that a third generation of Bortons returned home to carry on the family tradition. Growing up as neighbors and cousins, Byron’s and Richard’s sons, Bill and John, were more like brothers, learning the ropes of farming just as their fathers had. While they briefly considered working outside of the family business while studying in college, both returned home.
According to Bill, who graduated from WSU with a degree in horticulture before serving four years in the Army, “During college, I thought I might go into horticulture research, but I ended up being drawn back to the family business because I truly enjoyed it.” John, who graduated from Seattle Pacific University with a double major in chemistry and business, considered a career in chemistry before having a serious discussion with his father.
“It was a tough time in the apple industry. My father and Uncle Byron were unsure of the future and didn’t want us to feel obligated to come back to the farm. They encouraged us to consider other careers, thinking it might be time to sell the family business. Surprised by this, I decided to come back while the opportunity was still there.”
When they returned to Yakima together in 1972, Bill and John were presented with a unique opportunity. Rather than gradually transferring responsibility to their sons, Byron and Richard handed the reins of the business over soon after their sons arrived.
John Borton reflects, “Our fathers stepped aside and wanted us to make all the key decisions not only with day-to-day operations but also the future direction of the company. If we were going to be the future, our fathers wanted us to sink or swim by our own decisions.”
Bill assumed responsibility for all growing operations, while John focused his attention on sales, marketing, and warehouse operations. Armed with the motivation to expand the company, they would oversee a period of exponential growth over the next two decades.
When recounting significant factors in the growth of the company, Bill and John point to a number of developments. In 1979, a second fire destroyed most of the warehouse and packing line. In the process of rebuilding, Borton Fruit partnered with Food Machinery Corporation to develop and install the apple industry’s first electronic sizer and color sorter.
Borton Fruit was able to actively participate in the development of this leading-edge technology—one that would soon become the industry standard. Innovation wasn’t limited to warehouse operations.
On the farming side of the business, Borton Fruit invested in several large parcels of undeveloped land, allowing for diversification into new apple varieties. The most significant of the acquisitions was the Flat-Top Ranch east of Pasco, Washington. The original piece was purchased in 1982, and in ensuing years, additional pieces were added to the ranch, to bring the farming acreage to over 2,800 acres. True to the Borton tradition of keeping it all in the family, Flat-Top was purchased in partnership with Dave Hovde, the husband of Donna (Borton) Hovde, the late Don Borton’s daughter.
According to Bill Borton, “Having a considerable amount of undeveloped land allowed us to be among the first to market new varieties as they became popular. This allowed us to be industry leaders in the development of Fuji, Gala, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Jonagold, Cameo, and, most recently, Honeycrisp.” Borton Fruit has also been an Industry leader in innovative growing practices.
John Borton points to the company’s decision to acquire two large apple, pear, and cherry packing and storage facilities as key components that allowed for the expansion of its cherry and pear production, enhancing the company’s product mix.
The decision to diversify into the businesses outside of farming has also been integral in the company’s overall growth. John Borton explains: “We recognized an opportunity in construction and real estate development, acquiring and building more than 600 apartment units in Yakima. We also designed and developed the Apple Tree Golf Course & Resort community.”
Carved from the natural rolling terrain of the surrounding orchards, Apple Tree has quickly become one of the Pacific Northwest’s premier golf courses. Apple Tree’s signature 17th hole features the world-famous apple island green, which has become an icon in the apple industry and is widely believed to be the state’s most photographed golf hole.
While unprecedented growth has occurred under the leadership of John and Bill Borton, a fourth generation of Bortons has returned to the business, poised to make its mark with expansion, innovation, and diversification.
Bill’s son Byron, a Whitworth graduate, is the company’s Chief Visionary Officer. John’s son Eric, a University of Puget Sound graduate, is the company’s Vice President of International Sales. John’s daughter, Katie (Borton) Birley, returned along with her husband, Andy Birley, in 2003 after they both graduated from Colorado State University.
Katie’s responsibilities are helping to oversee Apple Tree Resort and Apple Tree Construction Company. She recently partnered with her cousin Byron in the recent construction of 330 apartments at Castle Creek and a 25,000 square foot corporate headquarters for Borton Fruit. Andy serves as general manager of Borton Fruit operations. Bill’s son-in-law Andy Judd farms with his dad in Tieton but also manages several Borton ranches in the Tieton area. Also, John’s nephew Jon Kinloch, who graduated from Gonzaga University, serves as General Manager of Apple Tree Resort.
When asked how the up-and-coming generation of Bortons will make its mark on the future, Byron Borton explains. “The young blood coming into the company is like a shot of adrenaline. Not only do we have fresh ideas about the company’s direction, the enthusiasm to build upon what we have is quite exciting. Technology continues to change, not only in the packing sheds but also in the field.
“Each year, new strains of cherry and apple varieties are released into the market. It takes quite a while to truly evaluate the long-term performance of each new variety. Everybody is afraid of missing the next big thing—such as Honeycrisp—so you are seeing growers taking gambles on varieties before they have been truly vetted. Keeping your eyes open to new and innovative prospects is half the battle.”
Eric Borton believes the global marketplace is the most significant area of opportunity for growth into the future. “While domestic sales will continue to drive our core business, international exports to developing markets around the world represent an enormous opportunity for every type of fruit we grow,” he said. “It’s important that we not only understand how each international market is unique, but also to invest time learning about each culture and cultivating relationships.”
According to Byron Borton, the future also holds a number of challenges. “Labor continues to be a challenge into the future. Not only are skilled employees difficult to find and retain, but the harvest window to get all of the fruit picked with ideal maturity continues to narrow.”
When asked what it’s like to have so many Bortons under one roof, the answer carries a common theme. Eric Borton says, “It’s amazing to be able to share success and the experience of running a business with your family. Each person has their own unique talents and ideas, which helps breed success.”
According to Andy Birley, “It can be challenging at times, but it is also rewarding knowing the hard work you put in helps build the business and makes it stronger for the next generation.” John Borton agrees: “Working in a family business certainly does have its challenges, but it also has great rewards working together as a team to accomplish a common goal.”
Borton Fruit has experienced great loyalty and dedication from its employees. Forty-six of its current employees have been with the company more than 15 years. When asked to what he attributes the company’s remarkable record of retaining employees, Bill Borton explains, “From an ownership standpoint, we’ve always tried to make sure that our employees know that it’s their hard work and dedication that truly make us what we are today.”
When asked what his grandfather Byron Sarver Borton would think of Borton & Sons 100 years later, John Borton said, “I think he would be thrilled with what we’ve accomplished, but I think he would be most proud of how we’ve honored the values and heritage of the family throughout the company’s growth. As the next generation takes the baton, it’s our hope that we honor and preserve that legacy for years to come.”