50 Years at the Top: Founded to Salvage Blemished Fruit, Tree Top Today Is Industry Leader for Apple Products

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Over a half a century ago, Bill Charbonneau, his wife and two sons moved to Washington's Yakima Valley from Southern California. There, he purchased a small apple-processing plant on Produce Row in Selah and he set out to develop a quality brand of apple juice. This small move would soon have huge ramifications for the entire apple industry of the Northwest.

Charbonneau's office was located in the plant so that he could personally oversee juice production. The apples were pressed and the juice was stored in 5,000-gallon holding tanks. Every time a batch of apples was pressed, a sample was brought to Charbonneau to taste. If the juice did not meet his approval, the entire 5,000-gallon tank would be poured down the drain.

Charbonneau held a contest among his employees to choose a brand name for his product. "Tree Top" was the winning entry, it being widely believed in those days that the very best quality fruit grew at the top of the trees. The original product line included three single-strength apple juices and three sizes of apple cider (which is tarter than juice because of the different apples used in the blend).

The region's juice industry was small in those days, but there was a desperate need to develop it further to help counter the tremendous losses growers were suffering on their blemished fruit. Although still delicious and healthy to eat, there was simply no market for blemished apples. In some years, the losses were tremendous.

In 1950, Life magazine ran a double-page photo showing 5,000 railway cars filled with Washington fruit being dumped into the Columbia River because there was no processor to handle it. As late as 1960, many growers were paying to have their fruit dumped or buried in the canyons and rivers of the state. The fortunate ones were selling their off-grade fruit for a shaky $5 a ton.

Co-op formed to stop waste

In a bold bid to turn this situation around, a handful of fruit growers formed a cooperative that purchased Tree Top from Charbonneau in 1960. In just the first 20 years of operation as a co-op, Tree Top generated in excess of $85 million for its members by transforming what had been a waste product into premium juices, apple sauce and other delicious food products.

Tree Top is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a co-op that today has just over 1,000 members who grow fruit throughout the Pacific Northwest. Their co-op rings up $359 million in annual gross sales. In addition to the fruit products it markets to consumers, the co-op is also one of the world's leading suppliers of fruit-based ingredients to food manufacturers.

Tree Top processes nearly 300,000 tons of apples and pears each year, with about one-third of that crop used for premium juices that are marketed primarily in the West and Midwest. The co-op has been a major innovator in the fruit industry, pioneering the production of frozen apple juice concentrate, among other processed products.

It is also the world's largest producer of dried-apple products, which can be found in the nation's top brands of cereals, snacks and bakery goods. Tree Top's food laboratories contain the most sophisticated equipment available for testing juice quality, and it has the apple-juice industry's only trained taste-profile panel.

"We are thrilled to be celebrating 50 years of playing an important role in our Northwest economy and look forward to celebrating this milestone with our grower owners, employees, and our valued customers, and community," says Tree Top President and CEO Tom Stokes. "Our growerowner relationships are the backbone of our business, making it possible for us to produce the best quality apple juice and products."

The celebration began in May and runs through October 2010, with events being held from the heart of Washington's apple country to The Big Apple (New York City). As the company marks its half-century milestone, it remains dedicated to the tradition of quality established by Charbonneau, Stokes says. …