Western innovator: Grower finds fame in compost
Scion of cherry dynasty brews 'medium-rare steak' to nourish trees
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Kyle Mathison is known for exuberance, optimism and keeping a fast pace.
The ponytail he's sported for the past 22 years -- he's 58 now -- harkens back to the self-described hippie days of his youth. He said it speaks to the fact that he listens to a different drummer and that he's a thinker and innovator.
It wasn't a total surprise six years ago when he launched into organic composting of tree fruit, not in a backyard fashion but a scale large enough to create a business.
Mathison has resources many growers don't. He's in the fourth generation of a family that owns one of the largest, noncitrus tree fruit companies in North America and is No. 1 in cherries: Stemilt Growers Inc. The family settled on Stemilt Hill, south of Wenatchee, in 1893 and began growing tree fruit there in 1914.
Mathison's late father, Tom, founded the company and his son, West, is president. Kyle Mathison is vice president of research and development and Chilean operations.
But Mathison said he has never been much for office work. He loves getting his hands dirty, quite literally, in his own orchards. Kyle Mathison Orchards has cherry acreage on Stemilt Hill, in Bakersfield, Calif., and in Chile.
He downplayed how much, saying, "I'm just a poor, little, old dirt farmer, trying to eke out a living."
Mathison started his organic compost operation in 2005. He went to a workshop in Yakima the year before and liked what he heard from composting experts Arden Andersen, a medical doctor and agronomist from Michigan, and Craig Witt, a compost and fertilizer consultant from Nevada.
"Andersen said nutritional values and taste and flavors of fruit are greater if trees are armed with high-quality compost," Mathison said.
He started his own composting on 14 acres hidden away in a hollow on Stemilt Hill.
Rotting apples, pears and cherries are trucked in from the packing plants of Crunch Pak, Stemilt and Blue Bird. Chipped prunings from his orchards are added to grass clippings and yard debris from Stemilt Organic Recycling Center, which opened in March of 2010. Horse manure comes from Appleatchee Riders, a horse stable. There are apple leaves and hydrated lime from the warehouses.
Compost has to have the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen, with fruit waste and manure supplying most of the nitrogen and wood chips supplying most of the carbon, he said. Wood chips are also coarse, helping with aeration, and reduce odors when applied to cover rotting fruit and horse manure.
Ingredients are mixed in the long windrows every day for the first couple of days. Then they are mixed every other day, then every third day or twice a week and eventually once a week during the end of the two-month production cycle.
A large auger, towed by a tractor, churns the 4-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide windrows, creeping along at 70 to 110 feet per minute. Water is sprayed into the mix, helping the microbes do their work.
The ideal temperature for mixing the compost ingredients is 140 to 143 degrees. Fungal microbes do their best work at that temperature.
"You don't want to let it get too hot or too cold," Mathison said. "If it's too warm, the carbon turns into black coal. We want brown humus. It's like a medium-rare steak. We want it juicy."
Operations cease from mid-November to mid-March because it's too cold for microbes.
Three years ago, Mathison produced about 1,600 tons of humus a year, applying it at 4 tons per acre on his Stemilt Hill acreage in the spring and fall.
Now he produces about 5,000 tons annually and still uses most of it on his own apples, pears, cherries, wine grapes and blueberries. Sugars in juice from his cherries increased from 20 to 24 percent after three years, he said.
Some of the humus is sold to other companies and growers and to the public at the recycling center.
He doesn't foresee the operation becoming much larger.
Composting, Mathison said, is good for the trees, the environment and cuts down on waste going to landfills.
Playing on Stemilt's slogan of "World Famous Fruit," Mathison likes to say he makes "World Famous Compost for World Famous Fruit."
Home: On Stemilt Hill, south of Wenatchee, Wash.
Education: Bachelor's degree in horticulture from Washington State University in 1976.
Occupation: Various jobs in his family's business, Stemilt Growers Inc.
Quote: "I call myself a cherry gypsy. I grow cherries from Washington to Chile."