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 caught up with Kaitlyn Thornton, who is a budding entrepreneur as well as a future farmer. Kaitlyn and her family farm apples and pears in the Tonasket area. They are also SugarBee® growers for Chelan Fruit.
CF: Hi there, Kaitlyn; thank you for giving us a few minutes of your time. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about your family’s orchard?
KT: Of course! Our orchard is 30 minutes from the Canadian border in Tonasket. My great grandfather, Roy, moved here from Cashmere and farmed about 100 acres in the valley. The farm eventually went by the wayside until my father discovered he had a passion for growing and decided to start buying back land that was in the family. My parents started out with 27 acres then, now have 440 operational acres.
I feel privileged to be born on the ranch that my parents built, and I mean literally born on the ranch! I have always loved being involved with the land and the operations as a child and my love of the land has only grown as I get older. I have watched my family deal with all of the hardships of farming: hail, wind damage, etc. But, it has only secured my passion for this ranch because I want it to succeed and see the legacy continue.
CF: That’s a great story! Were you interested in farm life as a child?
KT: Yes! I grew up helping out whenever I could; picked rocks out of the garden, washed tractors and I even learned how to thin apple trees. I also changed water a lot; my summer nights were spent getting soaked with sprinklers!
CF: I saw a sneak peek of the video that Chelan Fresh produced about you and your family. Tell us more about your fruit-selling business.
KT: My sophomore year in high school my father challenged me to sell 20 boxes of our apricots, which usually just fell to the ground every year. So, I put an ad in the Facebook Marketplace and ended up selling 44 boxes! After that I said to myself, “I can make this a thing!” So I started packing and delivering more fruit boxes. I started with apricots, then Bartlett pears and then eventually started selling apples too.
The first year I sold 400 boxes of fruit, then in my junior year I sold over 500 boxes. This year I sold about 1000 boxes.
CF: That is a serious business endeavor! How did you manage a business while going to school full time?
KT: It was fun actually. I would wake up before school and pack boxes in the dark with my truck’s headlights on, then deliver the boxes on my lunch break during school. I remember going back to school with a wad of cash in my pocket and feeling pretty good about it! My business is named Kait’s Crates, and I am now known as the “Apple Queen” in my area.
CF: That must keep you pretty busy; do you have time for other interests or hobbies?
KT: I am really interested in engines so last summer I started hanging around a diesel shop with big semi-trucks used for transportation. I learned a lot about mechanics but I also got to spend time with the truckers who hauled the fruit, so it was fascinating to hear about that side of the business as well.
I have also had the opportunity to travel with Chelan Fresh on SugarBee® promotional trips because we are SugarBee® growers. My father and I went to Maryland and Pennsylvania when I was 16 years old. I loved interacting with the consumers, as well as some of the grocery executives.
CF: What a great opportunity. Did that give you a different perspective of the industry?
KT: Definitely. I think consumers are more removed from agriculture than ever. I felt like I was helping people make the connection from fruit to farmer. I want people to know that real fruit comes from real farmers. Now, those people can think of me and my dad when they bite into an apple!
CF: Now that you have seen so many different avenues of the industry do you have an idea of where you want to go from here?
KT: Yes, I got accepted into WSU next year. After I graduate college I hope to work for Chelan Fresh as a marketing or sales person and eventually take over our farm operations.
CF: Will you continue to sell your crates?
KT: Yes, but I will be away at college so I will not be able to deliver anymore. I hope to make a fruit stand so I can pack some fruit and sell it on weekends when I am home.
CF: It has been wonderful to hear a fresh take on the the fruit industry from a future industry leader! Is there anything else you would like to say before we close?
KT: Yes, programs like the FFA have helped me a lot, I would like people to continue to support these programs. And I also would like people to know that fruit is not made by a machine and every purchase they make affects a farmer and their families.