Opportunity keeps knocking
The Mracheks aren't afraid of taking risks or of the hard work that comes with new ventures.
Laura and Mike Mrachek on Jumpoff Joe Ridge near Malaga, Washington.
Cherry, apple, and wine grape acreage at three locations in Washington State, a winery and tasting room, a commercial laboratory, and an irrigation scheduling service. These are among the businesses that Mike and Laura Mrachek of Wenatchee have built and developed during their 31 years of marriage.
Neither grew up in a farming family that could give them land to get started or hand down equipment, but both learned the value of hard work from their self-employed, entrepreneurial parents.
Mike's father owned Lyle's Boats and Motors in Wenatchee, a boat-making company started by his grandfather. His mother, Helen (deceased), was the twin sister of Tom Mathison, and while she wasn't involved in the Mathison fruit-growing business, Mike envied his cousins helping in the orchards. "I always wanted to work with my cousins on Stemilt Hill," he said, "even when I was little."
Laura's parents moved from Yakima to Coulee City in her teenage years to own and operate a lake resort. She spent her high school years --cleaning cabins and helping out in the family restaurant and store.
Laura is actually the horticulturist of the two, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in horticulture from Washington State University while Mike received Bachelor of Science degrees in soil science and environmental sciences there. They met at a meeting of WSU's Alpine Club, an extracurricular organization that sponsors outdoor events like rock climbing and cross-country skiing. "Laura was a much better rock climber than I," Mike said, adding that they continued to climb until their children were born.
Mike graduated from WSU in 1974, Laura graduated in 1976, and they were married the fall of 1976.
Mike got his chance to work on Stemilt Hill in 1978 when his uncle Tom asked him to leave his soil scientist job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service in Ephrata to run a soil lab for the Mathison family called Stemilt Testing Laboratory. He analyzed soil and plant fertility samples in their garage in Malaga. Within a few years, the lab outgrew the garage, and it was moved into a singlewide mobile trailer next to their house. Eventually, the lab became Cascade Analytical, Inc. They moved it to Wenatchee in 1989 and opened a Yakima branch in 2003.
During Mike's early years of running the lab, Laura worked for the Apple Maturity Program, conducting fruit maturity testing to help warehouses identify fruit for long-term storage.
In addition to conducting the Stemilt lab tests, Mike worked for Mathison Fruit Company and learned about tree fruit production. He eventually became senior horticulturist at Stemilt Growers, Inc., managing six fieldmen and working with growers on fruit quality programs for 14 years.
"When Dave Mathison suggested that I be a fieldman, I thought, 'but I'm not trained in horticulture.' I know about soils, not tree fruit," Mike said. "But Tom Mathison [who never finished high school and got his GED or general education degree years later] was real big on 'you can learn.' I'm sure that when growers saw me coming, they all said, 'Here's another fieldman to train.'"
The Mracheks began farming on their own in 1981 when they purchased a house and four acres of cherries from Tom Mathison. More than 25 years later, the Mracheks still live in the original house.
Mike noted that Laura planted their first acre or so of cherries by herself (with a few workers) because he was sick in bed when the trees needed planting.
The first 15 years of the lab were very difficult, Laura said. "The lab rested on the shoulders of the orchard. I didn't take a salary from the lab or pay myself for the first 15 years."
She also ran their cherry crews during cherry harvest for the first 25 years. "But I got so behind from being gone from the lab—for every week gone for cherries, I got behind two weeks in the lab," she said.
At one time, they also owned a consulting business called Columbia Agricultural Consultants that provided advice to row crop and tree fruit growers about irrigation scheduling, soil fertility, and plant nutrition.
In the mid-1990s, they founded a company called Irrigation Scheduling Methods, Inc., which Mike still operates, providing irrigation scheduling services to large and small growers and supporting software he developed to make irrigation recommendations based on soil moisture monitoring.
Through the years, the Mracheks have developed Lucky Bohemia Orchard and Vineyard to include about 270 acres of apples, cherries, and blueberries and 285 acres of wine grapes at Malaga, Quincy, and Mattawa. They released their first wine under their Saint Laurent label in 2001, and last fall, opened their own winery facility in Quincy.
With so much going on, how do they keep things straight? Mike explained that Laura is in charge of the laboratories, he runs the farming and irrigation scheduling service, and "we kind of trip over each other in the winery and tasting room."
To keep organized, Laura divides her day-planner calendar into a color-coded, foursquare grid to manage laboratory, winery, community service, and family meetings and activities.
The Mracheks share the same business philosophies: They are not afraid of taking risks or of the hard work that accompanies new challenges.
"We have a tough time turning away from opportunity," said Mike, adding that they view money as a business tool. "You can't get too attached to money because you can't take it with you."
When opportunities present themselves, they are usually laced with mountains of hard work, Laura said. "We've never been afraid of that."
She noted that they work well as a team, capitalizing on each other's strengths. "Mike is good at starting projects, putting land deals and financing together… seeing the 'big picture' of a project. But then he is ready to go to something else, so I carry it through, creating the order, management, and how to run it."
They also attribute their success in their many business ventures to their employees. "We are also --surrounded by very capable people," Laura said, referring to the 16 lab employees. At the winery, Craig Mitrakul has been their winemaker since 2003, crafting award-winning wines. Mitrakul worked at such noted wineries as Washington's Chateau Ste. Michelle and Three Rivers Winery, Ponzi Vineyards in --Oregon, and Rosemount in Australia.
Running a small business and agriculture are very similar, Laura noted. Both are generally hard work, bring unforeseen problems, suffer from economic downturns, and require commitment and dedication.
"You have high expectations every day of yourself, your family, your employees," she said. "There's going to be a lot of disappointment, but you can't let it get you down or take your power away."
In addition to working hard, those who are successful in small business and farming must also have a passion for what they do.
Laura, who describes herself as being intense, said, "You have to get up every morning, love it, and get excited about it. We both have a passion for it."
As Mike and Laura look to the future, they plan to expand their Saint Laurent Winery and hope to develop food safety and winery analytical services at Cascade Analytical.
Their son, Bryan, who will graduate from WSU's viticulture and enology program this spring, eventually plans to join the family winery as general manager after first gaining outside experience. Daughter Allyson is working on a master's degree in nutrition and has plans to work abroad, but she helps in the family winery when needed. Both have worked in the orchards and in the family businesses and received the sense of how important hard work is in life, said Laura.
"I'm not saying that the whole thing hasn't taken a toll on our children. You'll never see dinner on our table before 7:30. But they got my passion and energy. They know that everything we have, we've earned."
If opportunity continues to knock on their door, will they keep answering?
"We are getting to the time in our lives where we are thinking 'We know we can do this,' but should we?" Laura replied.