Apples are the largest commodity segment at Starr Ranch Growers. While the company grows and provides a variety of other fruits within the marketplace — pears, stonefruit and cherries — team members think of apples as its “hero” fruit and the bulk of its business.
“In one year alone, we can expect to harvest and ship 750 million fresh apples and are fortunate to utilize an array of beautiful orchards across the State of Washington,” said Dan Davis, director of business development. “It all starts with a good seed, and that good seed was our founder, the late Paul (Tommy) Thomas. Our proud traditions root back to 1934, when he founded our company in the heart of Washington’s apple country.”
Thomas started Starr Ranch Growers as an export business that would grow and nurture, not produce and monetize. In the earliest years, Starr Ranch apples were shipped in wooden boxes and whiskey barrels.
“Shipping fruit was no easy task since sea vessels had no refrigeration, but this didn’t stop the enterprising Mr. Thomas,” Davis said. “Tommy insulated the barreled apples with sawdust, and the ship’s holds were opened to allow cooling during long voyages to keep the fruit fresh. From the very beginning, we’ve been committed to giving our customers only the very best.”
Initially, most of the fruit was grown on the original 300-acre Starr Ranch, south of Pateros on the Columbia River. In the 1960s, the orchard was flooded with the construction of Wells Dam.
“Tommy and his fellow partners bought two more 100-acre ranches near Brewster and constructed the first packing plant, which still lives on as one of Starr Ranch Growers’ warehouses today,” Davis said. “Starr Ranch Growers began with just 15 growers packing out of a single shed. Today, there are more than 7,000 acres of orchards, multiple plant locations, an array of modern varieties being grown and harvested, new technologies and advanced growing methods, sustainable packaging solutions and more.”
Being successful in this segment means keeping the grower in mind in all that it done.
“It means ensuring premium quality and consistency to our customers and consumers, remaining vigilant when it comes to discovering new trends in the marketplace, forecasting for the future and testing new varieties that align with our consumers’ needs, advancing our technology and creating new efficiencies in and out of the orchard every season, and maintaining a sustainable outlook in every facet of our business,” Davis said. “Despite all of these imperative key components, success truly starts with a seed and growing the best quality fruit possible.”
During the past year, Starr Ranch joined most in the industry in pivoting and remaining flexible to its best ability, while prioritizing the health and safety of employees and staff.
“From a marketing perspective, consumers were plugged in more than ever at home, and it allowed us the opportunity to connect with various demographics through new recipe content, grower videos, our Harvest Home blog, consumer promotions, co-branded partnerships and more,” Davis said. “Despite a certain level of detachment we’ve all faced, we quickly looked at this new landscape as an opportunity to connect and engage with consumers in a way we never had before, and to digitally grow our consumer base and brand awareness to new heights.”
Apples have proven to do well this year in most areas of the country and that is definitely the case in Starr Ranch’s home state of Washington.
“With the effect of COVID-19 on retail stores, we are seeing double-digit increases in bagged apples, with a small decrease in bulk apples,” Davis said. “Bagged varietals in particular are doing great with attractive price points. The JUICI apple is up triple-digits from last year’s sales numbers according to IRI data, which matches up very well with our increased production and marketing initiatives for 2021-2022.”
Crop quality is looking good despite weather hurdles faced this summer in Washington State. In June, much of the area faced a heat wave producing dire temperatures of 110 degrees or more.
“While sunburn and size are still questionable in certain areas of our orchards, our growers and personnel have done an excellent job of mitigating these concerns,” Davis said. “Estimates are currently to-be-determined once growers have a better understanding of the outcome and effects of the heat in a few weeks. Ultimately, what we are seeing in our orchards is strong quality despite these challenges, with higher elevation orchards specifically producing fantastic fruit.”
Starr Ranch has recently developed new fully recyclable HIC2 plastic apple bags that will eventually replace the bulk of its inventory. The HIC2 bags are made of High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) plastic.
“When HDPE recycling is done the right way, we can help keep non-biodegradable plastic waste out of landfills and help the environment,” Davis said. “We look forward to continuing to elevate our sustainability initiatives and educating consumers on the process and how we can each contribute to do our part. We also look forward to introducing and marketing our newest apple variety, Karma, and educating consumers and customers on the philanthropic message that pairs with its great flavor.”