Whitestone Mountain Orchard

Whitestone Mountain Orchard, Fueling our Future with Organic Fruits

Sandra Yerges

In the years preceding 2017, Hal Jackson fueled the minds of future educators as a professor. Now, as a co-owner at Whitestone Mountain Orchard with his wife, Claire Lichtenfels, he has the opportunity to fuel the bodies of students by supplying the company’s organic fruit to Washington-based universities and schools.

This switch to full-time agriculture was made with their family in mind. Claire’s father started the orchard in 1992 around the time of his retirement. At its origin, Whitestone Mountain Orchard was not set out to be a multigenerational business. However, when faced with the idea of the company making its way out of the family, Hal and Claire were determined to ensure that did not happen. Equipped with the agricultural experience Claire developed while working at Washington State University’s Organic Farm, they were ready to acquire this new venture and transform it into an organic operation.

Their early desire to keep the orchard rooted in the family has since been fulfilled beyond the two of them. With their youngest son, Simon, working on the team, the company has grown from a second to a third-generation operation. Together, the three work to ensure every area of the orchard is running smoothly.

Although they all pitch in on general managerial duties, they each have their responsibilities when it comes to the daily operations of the business. Claire immerses herself in the cultivation of the apples, pears, and black currants grown on their current spread of 65 acres. On the other side of the operation, Hal is often on the road delivering their products, managing sales, and corresponding with Simon on the certification work for their soon-to-be-developed juice products.

Through their mix of freshly picked, dried, and buttered offerings, it is evident that the three fruits harvested at Whitestone Mountain Orchard can be enjoyed in multiple ways. As described by Hal as “dual-use fruit,” these grown varieties can be versatile in value-added products and desirable to consumers on their own.

Product flexibility in this industry has its limitations, however, with the dynamic taste preferences of potential customers. No orchard can offer every desired fruit variety, and the process of adding new varieties is costly and time-consuming. Whitestone Mountain Orchard is aware of this obstacle and has been proactive in sharing their company’s story as a way to create brand-loyal customers.

Having an established online presence is key to this endeavor. Fortunately for the orchard, they had the 2020 Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) to fund a website update to communicate their family-oriented values and provide an online shopping option. Along with a new marketing plan targeting the surrounding community of food hub and academic wholesale customers, Hal shared that the main plan for this grant funding was “to sell local.” In doing so, they created a group of delivery-based customers who have helped them grow in their production efforts.

“The orchard last year produced about one and a half million pounds of fruit,” he explained. “We are now packing approximately 225,000 pounds, or 15% of that amount, and selling it directly to schools, food box programs, and specialty grocery stores.”

Preparing these offerings for shipments would not be possible without the help of the additional orchard employees who partake in the H-2A Guest Worker Program. A number of these Hispanic and Latino workers have been with the company long before Claire and Hal took over the operation, so they have created strong bonds with one another over the years. While being housed on-site at Whitestone Mountain Orchard, they have found their home away from home.

The support these employees have shown to the business has been reciprocated by the career opportunities afforded by the orchard and financed through the VAPG. Hal shared, “We are really proud of the fact that we employ a number of individuals from the packing side of the program that just annually have trouble finding work.” Even though it may be difficult labor, the dependable relationships they prioritize at the orchard every day help feed the community at large.

Because Whitestone Mountain Orchard is located in the secluded city of Tonasket, Washington, their idea of what makes up the local community is broader than those from more populated areas. For their packed product deliveries, Hal travels hours to ensure his wholesale customers receive their goods. 170 miles marks the shortest distance he drives for delivery drop-offs, which in turn, adds to the company’s expenses.

Without the help of the VAPG in cutting costs during the delivery process, keeping product prices reasonable for new and existing customers would have been challenging. When faced with the increased prices of organic fruits, schools often do not have the money in their budget to create business relationships with producers like Hal.

“We don’t necessarily get the organic bump with schools, and yet, we have the volume,” he shared. “The grant made it possible to even try.”

Hal stressed the importance of this grant as it helped create more of a direct sales focus for his family’s business. It was so impactful for them that their future may include applying for the VAPG again. Turning their organic juice plans into tangible products is the next step for Whitestone Mountain Orchard, which will bring forth business and funding opportunities as fresh as the fruits they grow.