Byron and Eric Borton want to make one thing clear right away: Yes, their respective dads, Bill and John, have enjoyed a tremendous amount of fortune in building Borton & Sons, but nobody — nobody — has worked harder.
“When we were kids, that’s when Borton Fruit really started to grow,” Eric recalls. “I can remember when I was about eight years old, I didn’t always get to spend as much time with my dad as I wanted because he’d be working crazy hours. He’d drive the ‘Cat’ first thing in the morning, work all day in the warehouse, then later, in the wee hours, I’d fall asleep on his shoulder with him on the forklift, and he’d head home and put me to bed.”
Byron nods, recalling his own father in the spring of 1989, when there was frost danger for something like 18 or 19 nights in a row.
“I remember he was up every night until after midnight or 1 a.m., then he’d be up at 6 and do it all over again,” he says, adding that he can recall exactly what his dad told him afterwards: “We don’t have any option if we want to be successful; that’s what we have to do.”
In part because of those qualities, American Fruit Grower and Western Fruit Grower magazines are pleased to announce Bill and John Borton of Yakima, WA, are our 2019 Apple Growers of the Year. The Bortons will be formally presented with the award, which is sponsored by Valent USA, at the annual U.S. Apple Association Apple Crop Outlook & Marketing Conference in Chicago, Aug. 22-23.
Bill and John, who are cousins, are co-owners of the company, with Bill serving as Director of Farming and John as Director of Business.
Today their company is one of the largest apple-growing operations in the nation, farming more than 6,500 acres of apples, pears, and cherries at numerous ranches over a wide swath of central Washington. But as their sons note, the company was nowhere near that large when Bill and John took over in 1972, when they inherited 220 acres of apples and went to work.
The willingness to take risks, some on the farming side, some on the business side, was absolutely critical to their success. A good example was when Bill and John had what at first appeared to be an absolute disaster in 1979, when their original packing line and storage area burned down. In replacing the old equipment, they went for the state-of-the-art technology.
The pair purchased the first computerized electronic sizer and color sorter in the U.S. The new technology vastly improved the accuracy of sizing and color-sorting of the fruit with less labor. They have continued aggressively expanding and updating their storage and packing facilities ever since, culminating in the construction this year of the massive Borton Packing Center.
Actually, “massive” doesn’t begin to describe the complex, which is designed to store an astounding 600,000 boxes of packed fruit in single-faced racking seven tiers high. At full capacity, they will be packing 1,250 bins of fruit per shift. The packed fruit processing area has 197,450 square feet, and the packed fruit storage area has 203,042 square feet, but that doesn’t really do it justice because it has a unique palletizing system installed in the packed fruit storage area.
The system, built by Aweta, has 10 levels of conveyors. (In other words, not only is the room big enough for a few football fields, it’s just about tall enough to punt in, too.)
In traditional packed fruit storage rooms, pallets are usually stacked three high and 20 deep. But with the new system, each pallet has its own license number and position, so any one pallet can be pulled up instantly.
“With the old system, some of the pallets at the back never get turned effectively,” John says. “Now, no pallet has a pallet in front of it.”
The monstrous facility has all sorts of features not seen in most packing plants. For example, each apple gets a sticker that isn’t printed and applied until just prior to going in the box.
“That saves us from all kinds of sticker cleanup headaches when applied traditionally at the front end of the sizer,” John says. “We have tried to install the latest and greatest technology for labor savings.”
Besides embracing the latest technology, another example of risk-taking that has paid off for the Bortons is in aggressively planting new varieties.
“We’d jump on each new variety as they came online,” says John, the more talkative of the two men. “We got in on the ground floor with ‘Grannies,’ then jumped on ‘Fuji’ in a big way.”
Now it looks easy, even obvious, to grow a variety like ‘Fuji,’ which was so much crunchier than other varieties, though still sweet. But Bill says he can recall the trepidation with the variety.
“People were waiting on ‘Fujis,’ concerned about getting enough color,” he says. “But to get out ahead of the curve in production, you had to jump in before everyone else jumped in.”
Another factor that makes it difficult for growers is you know breeders are constantly making improvements, and if you wait, you can plant something better.
“It’s tough for an apple grower, because you know the early strains of each variety are not going to be as good as those found later,” Bill says. “We knew that, but jumping in early helped because the price was relatively high because there wasn’t the huge volume.”
They also scored, albeit to a somewhat lesser degree, with ‘Gala’ and ‘Pink Lady.’ Not all their choices paid off in a big way., including varieties like ‘Jonagold’ and ‘Cameo,’ for instance, are losing retail shelf space to other new varieties. Fortunately, they didn’t plant as many acres of those as they had the others. But the Bortons really scored with the star variety of the past couple decades, ‘Honeycrisp.’
“We were earlier than most (in 2000) to plant ‘Honeycrisp’ with some real volume,” John says. “Early on, we were one of the biggest ‘Honeycrisp’ growers in the state.”
The story in apple varieties the last 10 years has been club varieties. One club variety the Bortons are really high on and have planted is a New Zealand variety called ‘KORU.’ They’ve also planted a few others from New Zealand, including ‘Envy’ and ‘Jazz.’ The Bortons note many of the clubs are really good-tasting and crunchy, but they’re not all going to make it because retailers only have so much shelf space.
But the New Zealand club variety they are most invested in is the ‘ROCKIT.’ In North America, Borton Fruit and Chelan Fresh hold the exclusive licensing to grow, market, and distribute the apple. What’s unusual about the variety is that it’s miniature — tiny enough to be packed and sold in three- or five-count tubes.
“Its small size it lends itself to sales in convenience stores and coffee shops as well as traditional retail as a snack food item,” John says. “It’s not intended to compete with club varieties directly.”
The petite size and super-sweet flavor make them really attractive to kids, notes Bill, who adds that he likes them from a farming perspective because that smaller size lends itself more readily to mechanical harvest.
More recently, the variety on the lips of every Washington grower is ‘Cosmic Crisp.’ Like a lot of growers in the state, they have planted some, but also like a lot of growers in the state, they are concerned about the logistics.
“How do you go from zero to 3 million boxes in one year? Boom, right out of the shoot? That amount is concerning,” Bill says. “‘Honeycrisp’ was out there for years before it took off.”
No matter what variety you’re talking, Bill’s son Byron says his dad simply has a love of horticulture that’s unsurpassed.
“I joke he can farm better driving by an orchard at 70 miles per hour than I could looking at a single tree, but that’s close to the truth,” he says. “He’s doing literally hundreds of blocks, and he when he pulls up he knows the variety, the rootstock, and when it was planted. It’s amazing to watch.”
Bill quickly deflects any praise, pointing to his five capable regional farm managers as being critical to the company’s success. Byron emphasizes that the managers are very close to his dad.
“They’re almost like old married couples on the farm, they each know what the other’s going to say. If I went out and there and tried to do that, it wouldn’t work. He truly loves them, I wouldn’t say as much as his son,” Byron says, smiling, “but as much as his son.”
WOW — 187 BINS!
Certain apple varieties, such as ‘Golden Delicious,’ are known for producing high yields. But 187 bins per acre over a 20-acre block? John Borton proudly notes that is Cousin Bill’s record.
When growers achieve extraordinarily high yields in one year, in the next year there is some biennial bearing effect, and the yield will dip way down. But John emphasizes the next year that ‘Golden’ block still averaged yields that many growers have never achieved: 125 bins per acre.
John mentions that statistic by way of noting that his partner can farm a little bit, and that is another big factor in the company’s success.