Founded by the late Paul "Tommy" Thomas, Sr. in 1934, Starr Ranch Growers originated as an exporting company, initially focusing on sending things such as tires and vodka from the West Coast to the Northeast.
Eventually, the Thomas family began investing in some farms, and the company started picking apples out of a single shed in Wenatchee, WA, and has since grown to more than 7,000 acres of orchards and multiple plant locations.
“Over the course of our 87-year history, we have evolved to become a vertically integrated produce company,” said Dan Davis, organic category manager for Starr Ranch Growers. “In the past 20 years, we have added partners comprised of other integrated families who own large orchard operations and packing sheds, who now have a minority stake in our marketing company.”
Dan Davis, Organic Category Manager, Starr Ranch Growers
As a large seller of conventional apples, pears, and cherries, Starr Ranch Growers knew it was important to grow and saw organic volumes increasing, so it started to do more with that segment. It heavily invested in one of its core partners—Gilbert Orchards in Yakima, WA—who was a big organic grower in the area.
“In the past 20 years, we have added partners comprised of other integrated families who own large orchard operations and packing sheds, who now have a minority stake in our marketing company.” -Dan Davis
In 2012, Starr Ranch Growers took on full accountability for all of Gilbert’s organic offerings. It was going so well that Davis was brought in to lead the organic division.
“Sean Gilbert and his crew were doing well growing and transitioning and building out all the core varieties, and it became more of an emphasis for us,” Davis said.
Starr Ranch organic apple snaQ bags
Today, in addition to offering organic apples, pears and cherries, Starr Ranch Growers also has a stone fruit organic program that includes apricots, peaches, and nectarines.
Sometime this year, Starr Ranch Growers should be in the realm of about 75-percent organic for its stone fruit products and will also offer organic availability on some of its proprietary apple varieties.
“The secret to success in organics is growing the right thing and having the right attention to detail in the growing operations,” Davis said. "Our success is rooted in the farm and in the agriculture to try and make sure we are producing the absolute best organics and that the organics are the best that we have to offer."
Starr Ranch organic Fuji apples in sustainable packaging
Sometime this year, Starr Ranch Growers should be in the realm of about 75 percent organic for its stone fruit products and will also offer organic availability on some of its proprietary apple varieties.
In 2021, the company has graduated to the point that it’s producing just over two million boxes of apples, but it’s not aiming to be the biggest, it would rather be the best.
Starr Ranch orchard
“A lot of our growth is really an evolution,” Davis said. “We’ll continue to grow at single-digit increases each year. We don’t have large chunks of land that we’re transitioning, but the growth we have is in the varieties we have—predominantly organic Honeycrisp, organic [Pink Ladies], organic Fujis.”
Starr Ranch Growers’ commitment to organics stems from a desire to serve its customers, communities, and the planet.
Because the company employs a lot less automation on its organic package line, and it’s purposely meant to be very flexible, the organic component does require a lot of labor. That proved to be something of a challenge over the past year.
“The pandemic impacted heavily the amount of bodies we could have in our building,” Davis said. “Our worker counts are down on purpose because we’re trying to only fill the building to 60-percent capacity. It’s been a trial to make sure we keep our people safe and sound while still generating fruit for market.”
Starr Ranch organic Juici apples
Another challenge of organic is trying to estimate the growth trajectory, and Davis noted that different retailers have different ideas on this.
“I think there are a lot of positive signs that the growth in organic will continue,” he said. “The fact that it’s been so resilient through COVID points out that organic really has a wonderful long-term place in the retail sector, and people will continue to trade up from the conventional.”
“Our worker counts are down on purpose because we’re trying to only fill the building to 60-percent capacity. It’s been a trial to make sure we keep our people safe and sound while still generating fruit for market.” -Dan Davis
With the American consumer looking to be more in tune with where their food comes from than in any of the previous three decades, Davis believes that creates opportunities for the company to highlight its offerings and tell the story of how it's different.
“We want to make organics our number one offering every day,” Davis said. “We are here for one’s organic needs every day of the year. There’s not a day that we can’t help you fill your shelves with whatever organic product [consumers] are looking for within our core makeup.”