The fourth-generation farmer in blue overalls with the beefy biceps and grey ponytail snaking down his back worked with five different architects to build his dream home on the edge of a rocky cliff outside Wenatchee, in the middle of Washington State.
From his back terrace, where only a glass railing separates us from thin air, the view is breathtaking — dusty beige hills quilted with green squares of pear and apple orchards. Off to the left, we can just make out his newest cherry orchards, which apparently love heights.
Somewhere behind the smoke from September’s devastating wildfires loom even higher snow-capped mountains.
Straight ahead flows the mighty Columbia River, providing all the irrigation Washington growers need to turn the barren desert into one of the world’s great fruit-growing regions.
This is Mathison’s world. His company, Stemilt Growers, on Stemilt Hill, is one of the largest U.S. growers of sweet cherries, apples, pears and tender fruit, about 22% of it organic. The fruit from these orchards and many like them is shipped to 26 countries.
Follow the leader
You’ve got to be nimble to follow the boss through one of his organic orchards. Uphill and down we go, ducking occasionally under limbs laden with gorgeous red gala apples, many bound for Canada.
Above our heads, Mexican workers perch on ladders a good storey high, filling pouches slung around their neck with apples and emptying them into white plastic bins placed between the rows. Each bin holds 800 to 1,000 pounds of fruit. Mathison stops occasionally to cut open an apple and inspect the seeds, which tell him if the fruit is ripe. He cuts slices so we can taste its crisp juicy sweetness.
“You always want your children to be successful,” says the showman, beaming at his fruit, which will be packed in Stemilt’s Artisan Organics boxes.
Across the dirt road are his exclusive Piñata apples, a German variety combining Golden Delicious, Russia’s Duchess of Oldenburg and England’s Cox’s Orange Pippin. Harvested in late October, they’ll be ready to eat in January.
Warm days – Wenatchee gets more than 300 days of sunshine – and cool nights bring out the colour and sugar of Washington apples. The isolation and dry climate mean fewer pests, so it’s much easier to grow organic fruit here than in other parts of North America.
In place of conventional sprays, organic growers use all sorts of methods to ward off bugs, from pheromone strips that smell like females to confuse the male codling moth and disrupt their mating pattern to fish oil to suffocate the female’s eggs.
Besides the rich volcanic soil, the biggest secret to his World Famous Fruit, he says, is his World Famous Compost. Wanna see it?
Moments later we’re back in the van and hurtling down the hill, following the dust trail left by his pick-up truck.
The 23-acre “farm” comes into view, with wide rows of black compost instead of trees. Mathison’s recipe for this designer dirt starts with wood chips and grass clippings, waste from the fruit packing plants and green waste from Wenatchee residents. To add calcium, clam and shrimp shells are trucked in from the coast. Twice a year, tons of the finished compost nourish Stemilt’s cherry and apple trees.
Like our own, Washington’s apple season is winding down. By early November, Stemilt will finish harvesting its 12 apple varieties, ending with Pink Lady. To ensure they last until at least April, the organic bins are stored near freezing in one of 250 controlled atmosphere rooms. When orders come in – we saw apples in the plant being packed for Loblaws – they’re brought out of storage and shipped within a week.
The biggest organic buyer is a mom with kids, explains Jessica Poingt, Senior International Trade Manager for the Washington D.C.-based Organic Trade Association.
Moms, it seems, perceive certified organic fruit as healthier and are comforted to know it’s been grown in lots of compost and hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides or been genetically modified – those dreaded GMOs.
Mathison, meanwhile, seems content to spend the days romancing his trees, checking his compost and showing off his prized orchards.
“Nobody wants to buy fruit from a corporation,” he says. “They want to buy from my boys and me.”