Mike grew up on an apple orchard and naturally decided to follow a career into the tree fruit industry. After graduation from Washington State University he worked for Washington Fruit & Produce, starting out in the warehouse for three years and then the sales desk for the next 10 years. In 1984, Mike moved to Wenatchee becoming the Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Stemilt Growers and then Vice President of Marketing at CMI Orchards.
Mike realized there was an opportunity to become more vertically integrated and transitioned into producing apples. He was able to take his years of experience on the sales desk and apply them in the orchard to grow and manage varieties he knew were in demand. Mike started with 50 acres in partnership with Mark McWhorter – dubbing the land as MM Orchards. Before MM Orchards was established, McWhorter and Hambelton had been growing together since 1986 on an orchard in East Wenatchee with another partner, Tom Mathison. McWhorter graduated from Washington State University and was a practicing veterinarian in Yakima. Together they helped build a future for MM Orchards that would one day include Mike’s son, Mark.
“We were one of the first organic apple farmers in the state,” Mike says. In 1996, MM Orchards adopted organic production into their operation. Years later, the organic category is one of the fastest growing trends in food production.
Mike’s son, Mark gained the “character building” experience in the orchard like many apple growers’ kids by pulling weeds in the rows at the age of 13. He worked in the orchard through college and when MM Orchards planted 50 acres of organic apples, he tended to it during its first year. In the early days of the organic production trend, Mark gained valuable experience that would help build him into a skilled veteran in the organic category.
Recognizing opportunity has helped build MM Orchards from 50 to over 1,000 acres of land and one of the first commercial organic orchards in the state. They are receptive to new variety trends, horticulture practices and technology that could benefit their overall operations. This family duo is determined to improve each year.
“We listen to what consumers want and try to grow it. We try to stay ahead of the curve,” says Mark.
Sometimes being a grower means taking risks and facing challenges. “It’s rewarding seeing the results in the packing room. It proves you did something right that year,” says Mike, “It’s still a big challenge. If you make a decision you are usually five or six years out before you know if it’s right.”
Mark adds, “it’s fun to think our products are actually something healthy and it’s feeding people. We’ve put in the effort to create what consumers want and we can have confidence that it’s going to be delivered to them, and our choices are hopefully going to be rewarding for them as well”