Yakima Farmers Team Up With Their Daughter To Serve 70 Customers A Week
By Molly Allen
When McIlrath Farms first launched its produce delivery service in February, the owners did not predict the program would grow from the 20 members they originally expected to the 70 members per week they are serving now.
The first-generation family farm in Yakima, owned by Scott and Esther McIlrath, started a produce box pick-up program at its markets three years ago. However, it never reached the stages of delivery until this year.
Prior to launching the program, the couple had been focusing their efforts on purchasing additional farms and replanting old orchards.
But they were happy to revisit the idea when their youngest daughter, Laura McIlrath-Riel, decided to take a break from her 15-year career as a social worker to help her family launch the delivery program.
McIlrath-Riel had volunteered with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program a year ago, so she had learned the methods necessary to see the produce delivery service succeed.
“I’m so glad I had worked on a CSA, and grew up on a farm, to learn more about packaging methods and delivery,” she said.
The family’s goal has always been to utilize McIlrath Farms produce and share it with valley residents.
“It takes a lot of work, but it’s so worth it to see products that are fresh and vibrant — and to be told by customers how impressed they are at the freshness of our produce,” McIlrath-Riel said.
The contents of the produce delivery are never publicized ahead of time, making each box a surprise for their customers.
The McIlraths want to play a role in educating the community about the benefits of produce delivery.
“It’s such a great learning opportunity for our members,” McIlrath-Riel said.
Each produce box includes information on any of the products in the box that may not be typical from their farms, as well as recipes from other members and local chefs. Information about storing produce, keeping it fresh and the optimal time to consume it is also included.
The McIlraths recently introduced a box return incentive program and have begun a composting program. When a produce box is delivered, members can leave their compost buckets out and they will be picked up and replaced with clean buckets.
“We work very hard to support other small producers,” McIlrath-Riel said, adding that much of the business’ success can be attributed to the support of the community and other small businesses.
“We are all very invested in helping others as much as we can,” she said.
Produce delivery customers are able to choose from a small, standard or large-sized box and have the option to add other local items such as breads from Buhrmaster Baking Co., cheese from Tieton Creamery and coffee from Basalt Roasters.
Scott McIlrath grew up spending summers, holidays and as many weekends as possible on his grandparents’ farm in Poulsbo.
“He loved working outside and loved the hard work,” McIlrath-Riel said.
Scott and Esther McIlrath moved to the Yakima Valley in 1976 with a dream of farming. At the time, Scott was traveling to Yakima selling insurance, and he absolutely loved the area.
The couple could not afford to buy farmland on the west side of the mountains, but they were able to purchase land in the valley — a 40-acre apple and cherry orchard where they built their home.
“My parents knew nothing about farming at the time really, but they persevered,” McIlrath-Riel said.
The McIlraths kept their insurance brokerage at the time, and Esther started a travel agency, to help them build financially and grow the farms.
The McIlraths have five children, and each of them would work on the farm mornings, evenings, weekends and holidays.
Now, their families play a role in its success as well.
There are currently nine full-time, year-round employees, but upwards of 30 employees during harvest.
McIlrath Farms now stretches over 300 acres of farm land, primarily growing numerous varieties of apples and pears, and organic cherries.
The owners are still heavily involved in the farm every day, even as they’re now in their 70s.
“Farming is a very difficult passion in many aspects — financially, physically, mentally — and yet they have continued to build this through hard work and determination,” McIlrath-Riel said.
Learn more about McIlrath Farms and its produce delivery service at mcilrathfarms.com.
Originally published in the Yakima Valley Business Times