Many of the orchards in Chelan valley are a family affair, with women playing a critical role in running smooth operations and growing the business. In our blog series “Women in Agriculture” we sit down with them to discuss their roles and thoughts on the industry.
This month we checked in with Deb Stennes to find out about her family and their long history of growing apples in the area.
Chelan Fresh (CF): Hi Deb, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. Can you please tell us a little bit about your family’s business?
Deb Stennes (DS): My husband Keith’s grandfather began Stennes Orchards on the banks of the Methow River shortly after he arrived in 1894. Our twin sons, Kevin and Mark and their families also live on the property near us, making them fourth generation. We farmed that 50 acres for several years, then purchased another orchard in the lower Methow Valley in the 80’s and slowly grew from there, adding the Okanogan and Tonasket orchards, along with several leases, growing to 600 acres.
Since then, we have let several leases go back and have removed unprofitable varieties and are farming less than 400 acres now.
CF: What fruits and varieties does your family grow?
DS: Our family grows cherries, apples, pears, plums and pluots, some conventional and some organic. We developed the Cascade Crest Organics label back in the 90’s.
CF: What was your start in the apple-growing business like?
DS: Keith and I married in July, 1969. That was the year following “The Freeze,” where temperatures settled around 30-40°F below zero the previous winter. That year we harvested 5 bins on 50 acres. Then began the removal of the orchard, working outside jobs, and starting over. I think we both look back on that as a time of drawing closer as a couple and as a family.
CF: Wow, that’s quite the induction! Were you and your husband prepared for it?
DS: As a city girl from California with a degree in History, I soon learned that apples didn’t just “grow on trees.” In spite of “hardships,” (100% hail loss one year), years of loss coupled with some really good years, our faith grew as we realized that our happiness was never dependent on our circumstances.
CF: What do you think about the changes that the industry is seeing?
DB: I wasn’t around to remember picking into wooden boxes and stacking them on pallets in the orchard but I have watched so many new innovations that have streamlined and made life easier for orchardists. The consolidation to very few packing and sales companies has definitely changed the landscape. The Methow Valley in the early days, was home to probably a hundred or more growers. Before 1968, there were orchards all the way to Winthrop. Now there are only about 5 families/groups farming the Methow, and only the lower Methow at that.
CF: Have new generations of Stennes joined the family business?
DS: Our family involvement has changed over the past few years. Both sons finished business degrees at Central Washington University. Our son, Kevin, was approached a few years ago to develop the Organic Program for Chelan Fresh. His twin, Mark, finished his MBA and went to work for Chelan Fruit Company last year as assistant to the General Manager. It has honestly been a blessing to see them utilize their gifts and talents in those areas.
We are blessed with great employees and the boys stay involved in the day-to-day decision making of our business. Meanwhile, my husband Keith is out the door by 6 every morning and headed to the office to maintain the day-to-day operations of our orchard company. He has been an outstanding role model and leader, not mention my best friend in life.
CF: What’s your outlook for the future? What will be the key to success?
DB: As far as the future of our operation, I am cautiously optimistic. We can’t farm in economies of scale like those in the basin, so we have to farm smart, planning ahead for robotics, replacing old varieties with new ones like Sugar Bee and Cosmic Crisp. The guys set 5 and 10-year goals, constantly brainstorming on text threads with one another.
CF: What’s been your greatest achievement?
DS: Biggest triumph? Hands down, a loving, faith-filled family. No contest. As I look back on almost 50 years of marriage, hail storms, cancer, successes and failures, milestones of all varieties, I know that the glue that held everything together was our faith in a faithful God. We have always believed that the spiritual legacy we leave will be the most important of all.