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A visit to Stillwater Orchards during harvest season
Six generations. One obsession. Since 1860, a family in the Sacramento Delta has worked tirelessly to bring their favorite fruit from their heirloom orchards to your family’s table. Today, Stillwater Orchards is owned and operated by the Elliots and produces 25,000 tons of pears per year which they sort and pack onsite with the help of year-round employees and about 175 seasonal workers. Here at Raley’s, we’ve been proud to partner with Stillwater Orchards and bring you the best quality, California-grown pears for over 40 years.
The family also lives there, on 10 ranches scattered throughout the massive property. Richard Elliot, Sr. and his wife, Becky are co-owners with Richard Sr.’s elderly mother, Bonnie. Their children, Richard Jr., Ryan and Rachel have worked on the farm since childhood, are inspired by their father’s commitment and have no plans to ever change career paths. And why would they—the family’s joy of being together to do this work is palpable and infectious. Richard Jr.’s wife is expecting, and Ryan just got married, so there is much to celebrate at Stillwater Orchards.
Irrigated by the Sacramento River in Cortland, California, half the orchard’s trees are over 80 years old. Planting usually begins each March, and it takes 7-10 years for newly planted trees to produce a commercial crop. Picking season typically starts in July. A cold snap in early March this year delayed the harvest about a week. Now in the middle of harvest, the fields were filled with skillful pickers on ladders filling bags with up to 40 pounds of pears per ascent.
Stillwater Orchards produces eight different varietals of pears, but the most popular by far is the flagship Bartlett pear. In addition, their trees yield Bosque, Stark Crimson, Hailey Red, French Butter, Seckles, Taylor’s Gold and Comice pears. They endeavor to grow their organically-farmed acreage over time. Currently 25 acres are in production of organic pears, and they’re working on the three-year process of converting another 65 acres to certified organic.
Once the pears arrive in large bins in the packing facility, they are gently washed, sanitized, stickered and sorted into three grades. The prettiest, blemish-free pears are categorized as fresh pack. A sizer machine separates the fruit into cups, which are programmed based on weight to drop the pears into the appropriate boxing area. The best-selling sizes are in the middle of the pears’ size range: 80’s and 90’s. Fresh pack pears are boxed under three different brands: Stillwater Orchards, Stillwater Daily and Delta Brand and sent to retailers all over the world, including Raley’s, Bel Air and Nob Hill stores.
Cannery grade pears have a cosmetic defect but are still beautiful on the inside. The most common blemish on Stillwater Orchards’ cannery pears is limb rub, which is caused by the cooling Delta breeze brushing branches against the fruit. Del Monte and Pacific Coast Producers are the orchard’s biggest cannery clients.
Juice grade pears are smaller fruit that a cannery wouldn’t want for efficiency’s sake. These pears are purchased by companies like Treetop Juice and Gerber Baby Foods as a raw ingredient for their products.
The family farm also rescues unsalable but perfectly edible food for the hungry. Last year, they donated over 720,000 pounds of fresh pears to the California Association of Food Banks.
The Elliots of Stillwater Orchards view family and their family business as one and the same, and they never tire of eating pears—but only locally grown pears during the California pear season. We couldn’t agree more that local and seasonal produce tastes better. We hope you try a Stillwater Orchards seasonal pear for yourself, proudly brought to you by your neighborhood Raley’s, Bel Air and Nob Hill.
To learn more about Stillwater Orchards, visit them online at www.stillwaterorchards.com
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