Heading into Washington’s apple orchards for harvest season
written by Corinne Whiting | photos courtesy of Stemilt Apples
If apples are your thing, Washington is your place. In this state, the produce is delicious and the stats juicy. According to the Washington Apple Commission, on average Washington grows 125 million boxes (or 2.5 million tons) of apples each year, which get exported to sixty-plus countries. The state has about 175,000 acres of apple orchards, and Washington growers produce six out of every ten apples consumed in the country—more than any other state.
For generations, hardworking families have harvested their tasty products between August and early November. Take, for example, the folks at Stemilt Growers LLC, who have been working for more than a century in Wenatchee, the self-proclaimed “Apple Capital of the World” (since it ships and exports more apples than anywhere on the map). Stemilt, a fifth-generation, family-run operation, has been farming apples, pears and cherries since the early 1900s, and they transitioned their first orchards to organic in 1989.
Brianna Shales, communications manager of Stemilt, said farming thrives in this part of Washington thanks to an arid, desert-like climate (warm days and cooler nights), not to mention irrigation channels that date back to Franklin Roosevelt’s Reclamation Project Act of 1939.
Stemilt grows many types of apples, from classic varieties like Golden Delicious and Granny Smith to newbies like Honeycrisp, Pink Lady® brand apples, their signature Piñata® and, as of this fall, the brand-new Rave™. “Every crop year is different,” Shales said. “That’s what keeps apples exciting and interesting.”
Rave: Washington’s Newest Apple
Shales expressed her excitement about Rave™ finally coming to the market (initially “in small ways”) in late summer, after a long process. She calls the brand-new variety “outrageously juicy” and very refreshing, with a Honeycrisp-esque snap, a bit of zing and no over-the-top sweetness. Although its extreme juiciness won’t make the apple ideal for cooking, Shales believes it will really shine in salads.
Developed by a University of Minnesota research team, the apple has been in the making for more than two decades, since the first cross-pollination of two flowers. (In such cases, researchers test thousands of crosses until determining they’ve created something that truly stands out.) “By the time it gets to us, they’ve convinced us [that this] apple has something special,” Shales said, at which point Stemilt commits to testing the apple in its orchards to assess how it does in this climate and these growing conditions.
SweeTango: A Washington Honeycrisp Apple on the rise
Shales is also excited about SweeTango®, which has now “really come to maturity.” She deems Honeycrisp—harvested in September—a great baking apple along with Golden Delicious and Piñata®, Stemilt’s exclusive variety that aligns perfectly with Thanksgiving season.
“What distinguishes Stemilt products from the rest? Detail,” Shales said. “In the farming world, you say that you win by inches, doing a lot of little things right. … Our horticulture team is so talented.” Countless measures are taken during production, too. For example, since the SweeTango® can easily bruise, employees gently set each one in a bin after hand-picking and clipping the stems.
Apple culture reigns throughout Wenatchee, where U-pick orchards and farm stands abound. Stemilt’s retail store stays stocked with seasonal, orchard-fresh fruit plus local Northwest products like Winthrop’s Blue Star Coffee. Shales advises visitors to load up here on the “biggest ice cream scoops in town” and Stemilt Creek Winery’s Caring Passion, a bold merlot created in honor of the company’s late founder Tom Mathison.
The Washington State Apple Blossom Festival
Every spring the Washington State Apple Blossom Festival draws thousands to Wenatchee and the state’s oldest major festival. Highlights of the two-week extravaganza include parades, a food fair, a pie eating contest and a riverside carnival. Other apple-centric celebrations span the state from Lake Chelan’s Manson Apple Blossom Festival each May to Vancouver’s Old Apple Tree Festival every October.
During autumn’s harvest season, Northwest chefs get inventive with creations savory and sweet. Executive chef Tristan Chalker of El Gaucho Bellevue lists the Granny Smith as his top pick. “They hold up very well in baking recipes, and their tartness shines through more than any other apple,” he said. “I have been eating Washington apples my entire life, and I can immediately tell if an apple I am eating is from [here], the same way I can tell if I am drinking a wine from Washington. The terroir is unique.”
Aside from starring on the plate, Washington-grown apples get blended into popular creations by Seattle Cider, the city’s first cidery since Prohibition; Tieton, owned by a third-generation Yakima Valley family; Lake Chelan destinations (like brand-new Cheval Cellars, Steelhead and Washington Gold Cider), plus outposts along the Olympic Peninsula Cider Route—like Finnriver, whose traditional offerings include the Sidra and Apple Abbey. “The cool thing happening with apples in Washington state is that the Stemilts of the world are all looking for new varieties,” Shales said. This means that consumers and chefs will soon have even more juicy options at their apple-picking fingertips.