During the early cherry season, West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, spends about half his time at the company’s California plant, where he sees plenty of familiar faces.
As the Pacific Northwest apple and pear packing season begins to wind down in the spring, the company sends a team of about 30 people, including forklift drivers, mechanics, and shipping managers from Wenatchee to work at its cherry-packing facility near Stockton, California, until the Northwest cherry season begins. That way, they experience two cherry seasons each year.
“Every cherry season is a learning opportunity, so our team gets two seasons a year to learn,” Mathison said. “I think it’s helped us become more effective in cherries.”
While all the cherries are sold by Stemilt’s own marketers, the export sales team goes to California for the season to meet with foreign buyers and show them the fruit.
Although Stemilt has a team of horticulturists in California as well as its team in Washington, both travel to both states so that they also gain two seasons of experience every year.
Field workers are hired through labor contractors, which is the typical recruitment method in California. Because bloom tends to be more spread out in California, some blocks need to be picked three times. By working with a contractor, Stemilt can have a crew pick fruit for a couple of days, then work for another orchard, and then return three days later to finish the harvest.
For the packing-line workers who are based in California, cherries are the first of a diverse list of crops they work with. After the cherry harvest is over, they find jobs with vegetable processors, and might work each season for three to five different operations. Mathison said many of the same people return to Stemilt for the cherry season every year.
Because of the diversity of agriculture in the region, Stemilt is able to keep its plant in use in the off season by using the storage for processing peaches, Bartlett pears, and peppers, as well as pomegranates and walnuts. The company also does some custom packing of other stone fruits.
Larry Stone, former production manager at Chinchiolo, is chief executive officer of Chinchiolo Stemilt California. Though based in California, he is part of Stemilt’s leadership team and travels each month to Wenatchee.
“He’s helped to solidify the cultures of the two teams between Washington and California,” Mathison said.
“I think any time there’s an ownership transition, there are opportunities to create an us-and-them environment, and Larry did a good job to help neutralize that situation.”