The Packer’s National Editor Tom Karst chatted on Aug. 4 with Keith Mathews, chief executive officer of First Fruits Marketing of Washington, Yakima.

Chat: Keith Mathews


3:30 p.m. Tom Karst: How did your career start in the apple business? Did you grow up on an orchard?

3:31 p.m. Keith Mathews: No, I’m a city kid from Spokane and my father was a construction superintendent. I graduated from high school and went out to Eastern Washington University, and I think I may have been on campus a very few hours before I met this young lady. Linda was from Yakima and her father had grown up in the fruit business. So I went through college and got degrees in psychics and mathematics and taught high school for eight years and my wife Linda taught kindergarten. My father-in-law, said, “Gee, I could use some help. Why don’t you come see what this apple thing is?” We were in Lewiston, Idaho, at the time but we came to Yakima and I started with him then.

3:33 p.m. Karst: Of course, since that time you have worked at the Yakima Grower-Shippers Association and with a couple of high profile marketers before coming to First Fruits Marketing as chief executive officer in October. Has the job been what you thought it would be?

3:34 p.m. Mathews: It has been a little more of a challenge. The now three anchors of our program are very longterm and solid companies, but yet at the same time it is a brand new business, so I don’t think I anticipated the time it takes to set up all the baseline of a business. A heavy percentage of the last two months, besides doing daily tasks, have been trying to set in place a consistency in salary, evaluation and process going forward, because we are ending our first year.

Aug. 3 was the one-year anniversary. We opened the doors a year ago with three employees. The first time I was here we had two cardboard boxes with fax machines in them, no phones, no computers, three people and probably a million boxes of inventory, so it was a pretty severe start. My first 10 months or so have been taking the staff from three to 20, hiring the right kind of people with the right kind of skill sets.

3:36 p.m. Karst: What is your business ambition for the company?

3:37 p.m. Mathews: Every day I would have our staff do the very best they can at delivering quality fruit to retail, earning our way in, proving we are partners and at the same time earning enough money that our growers are sustainable.

3:38 p.m. Karst: How is First Fruits unique and how do you communicate what its mission is? Does that matter to buyers?

3:39 p.m. Mathews: The Broetje family has a long history of committing serious money to help people around the world. You have to keep in mind that any company has been around a long time has made a lot of those decisions for themselves already.

We deal with a great retailer in Texas. They are very giving in their own corporate structure and they have chosen to help people in very serious need right around their community. So you have to honor the commitment people already have made and the good choices (buyers) have made.

But I do sense that something in different in this time that we are in. here does seem to be a lot different more defined interest in helping people around the world and honoring companies that do. That is really part of why I considered this job, that opportunity to deliver value back to the orchard, because I know where that money goes. Fifty percent to two thirds of Broetje's profits are committed to help people in need around the world.

3:40 p.m. Karst: How do you think the industry is doing? What do you see looking in to your crystal ball?

3:42 p.m. Mathews: I guess I have been around this industry for 30 years and know you can’t control change. It kind of comes at you. If there is sadness for me, it is the demise of the truly family farm.

My father-in-law bought a ranch in 1970, and the gentlemen who owned it, he and his wife worked it hard and lived a reasonably good life and put three daughters through college. That was a 14-acre pear farm in Wapato.

The economics in the world has changed so much that I think to survive as a family farmer, I don't think you can do it now on less than 200 acres and that probably in the range of $4 million invested. When I started, Washington state had something like 5,000 family farmers and now it is something like 2,000. I don't think the big growers and the big companies do any less of a quality job. The big growers and the big companies’ ability to plant large blocks of new trees and new strains is where it is today. I see that trend continuing.

I continue to worry that many people in our nation truly don't understand labor-intensive agriculture. I think our federal government has let us down from 1986 forward for not doing something more than they have done to straighten out immigration policy.