family background/Matt is a second-generation tree fruit farmer in Washington’s Yakima Valley and pursued a business degree from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Matt and his wife, Michelle, have a son and daughter, and Matt is the son of Rosie and Jerry Haak.
grower/Zillah, Washington
crops/Apples, cherries and pears
business/Haak Farm Management and Price Cold Storage and Packing

How did you get your start?
My mom and dad started the farm the year I was born. My mom said she was working in the orchard, carrying hand lines over baby trees dad planted when she was eight months pregnant.

They started with only a few acres and grew it to 10 different orchards. Most of my early memories were with him in the truck, changing water, doing frost patrols.

As the farm got bigger, I got more jobs — from weeding, pulling suckers, driving tractor to spraying. He wanted me to experience most of the things on the farm.

What are you focusing on now?
One of my roles in managing the business is trying to get everyone on the farm to row in the same direction. When my parents started, one thing they found valuable was asking other industry leaders about the mistakes they might be making.

I’m a young grower, obviously, and so I’m doing the same thing, asking mentors to challenge me to think differently about my decisions — the big business decisions. Things like, ‘Should we rip out this particular variety?’ It’s been helpful getting people who are more experienced and have all this wisdom to guide you.

What excites you about the business side of the farm?
I’m excited to watch our staff develop and grow into their roles within the company. Another thing I’m excited about is trying to capture and analyze data about what we do in the business.

Now, I’m not super excited about trying technology out and wasting a lot of money doing it, but I want us to get our toes wet to see what’s out there. I think the more data we can capture, the better we’ll be at making good decisions for the business.

What types of data have you found valuable?
There’s a ton of things that are cool, like drones that can take topographic maps, or cameras mounted on four-wheelers to capture bud or apple counts.

But at the end of the day, you need to separate the emotion about how cool it’d be from whether the information it collects helps make better decisions.

If you look at the data these tools create and you realize it’s not something that’ll help you, then move on. I ask myself, ‘Is it cool, or will it make us better at what we do?’

What success have you had with data management?
We’ve put in a system at the orchard level that streamlines payroll from the orchard to when the actual check is cut.

Through that process, from scanning tickets or bins in the orchard, it’ll transmit live data so I can look at what blocks are being worked on, how much have they picked, who’s picked what, how many people are clocked in, what time did they start. We’ve been able to use that real-time information to make immediate decisions this season.

What challenges are you facing?
We’ve tried to avoid the H-2A program for a number of reasons. One of them is that it’s expensive, forcing you to fundamentally change how you operate your business.

Without H-2A, it’s good to keep our workforce as local as possible — the money stays in our community. We’re trying to make decisions that keep our team executing throughout the course of a whole season. So, when we’re looking at replanting, we ask, ‘Does this fit within our harvest plans?’

Every harvest we look at these down times in the schedule and try to fit in other work, like planting trees in between harvest times. We are looking for opportunities to keep everyone focused and executing.

What would you tell other young growers?
I think if you are a person with integrity who is a hard worker and has a passion about what you do, there will be companies involved with tree fruit who’ll want you to be part of their team.

I don’t think you need to love pulling weeds to be a farmer. This industry needs so many different areas of expertise, especially if you have a passion for horticulture, science and engineering.

If you can find your passion and niche, surround yourself with good team members and then enjoy the ride.