Co-authored by Lee Glenn
On the road again headed out of the lovely Methow Valley to the east Washington...the part that no one would guess is the same state as the verdant Pacific Northwest. At the far border, below Spokane, is the Palouse, one of the most stunning geographies in the country.
But that story will have to wait because on the way is one of the most intensely agricultural regions in the U.S... home as you might guess, to the famous Washington apple. Passing orchard after orchard in the brown, high-desert countryside, we are on our way to meet Cris Hales, sister of agronomist Steve West. One of my heroes, Steve was instrumental in Julie's success in conducting a bio-nutrient soils study for effects on the nutrient density of various vegetables.
Cris has just joined Tree Top of Selah, Washington, one of the largest apple processing coops in the world. Like wheat before it, we're about to learn more about apple growing and processing that we could imagine from Cris and Corporate Communications Director, Sharon Miracle.
Growing up on Tree Top apple juice, aware of its commercial power and ubiquitous presence in most western U.S. super markets, one would think it was a giant food conglomerate... not. Founded in 1960, Tree Top is owned by over 1000 apple and pear growers. A farmer-owned agricultural cooperative, the bulk of their business is producing fruit products with the apples and pears that their grower's don't sell in the fresh market. Owning their own processing plants close to their fields is imperative to control the quality of their products which include fresh juice, concentrate, juice blends, dried apples, yogurt additives, fruit purees, ice cream additives and apple sauce. Their organic line includes apple juice, apple/apricot fiber-rich juice and apple fiber-rich juice.
In her position as Director of Fruit Procurement & Grower Services, Cris manages a field staff that grades the raw fruit, determining its best use... virtually no apple goes to waste. They have three grades: juice grade for concentrate or fresh press, peeler fruit to make ingredients and premium peeler for frozen or fresh slices and dices. "All are nice but with blemishes, the uglies not pretty enough for the fresh market," she explains.
This is 300,000 tons of fruit annually, though fruit is getting harder to source due to increased demand for fresh products overseas and, paradoxically, here in the U.S for quick serve menus. Not being fast food fans, we didn't know that McDonalds offers fruit in Happy Meals instead of fries...a small light shining in an otherwise dark tunnel.
Naturally, we're most interested in the organic component of Tree Top's business. Sharon is candid, telling us that market forces are actually causing more growers to leave organics due to the complexity of growing organic and increased profits from the demand for conventionally grown product.
"Processed organics are pricing themselves out of the market," she notes. "50 percent of the consumers are willing to pay more for organic, but how much more is being tested. The economy has also reduced organic consumption dramatically."
That being said, select major chain customers are increasing their organic demand. Chipotle restaurants, Starbucks and several baby food manufacturers source organic fruit products from them. Baby food manufacturers are particularly picky and Tree Top tests for metabolites and scrubs the fruit for organic pesticides before processing.
To satisfy their demand, Tree Top has an extensive supplier verification process for organic certification. "We know who we're sourcing from," says Cris. "80 percent of our apples come from Washington, with some from neighboring Idaho and Oregon, so we keep careful track."
Corporately, Tree Top believes that the difference between organic and conventional is narrowing in apple farming. According to Cris, "Apple orchards are a naturally more integrated environment. They're not plowed out every year allowing the soil to develop a healthier eco-system. Cover crops, planting of beneficials and less spraying is now common."
"Processing" is a tough word for us and Tree Top has over 900 employees in eight substantial facilities doing just that. Sharon's corporate explanation likens it to home canning on a larger scale. "The fruit is washed, sorted by use, the best segregated for fresh cut markets and the remainder squeezed, diced, pressed and heat treated to create sauces, juices and dried ingredients."
This is a big volume business though, processing 50 percent-55 percent of the fruit in Washington state and 145 million, 45 pound cases out of 207 million cases from the entire U.S.
Tree Top is proud of their "light-weighting" initiative to reduce the amount of materials used for packaging. In two years, they reduced their use of corrugate cardboard by 1.6 million pounds or enough to save 38,000 gallons of oil and more than 40,000 trees. In their bi-annual report on social responsibility corporate values and initiatives are listed. They are on a mission to reduce, reuse, recycle...progressive for an organization of such size and influence.
"We are conscious about our impact on the environment and in our communities, and do what we can to make a positive difference."
- Tree Top
"It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man."
- Henry David Thoreau