Interview with Stemilt

West Mathison started his career in agriculture at the age of six, pulling weeds in the Stemilt nursery. As he grew up, he gained experience running crews in the orchards and supporting human resources during college. After college, he left the family business for a few years to work as a consultant at Accenture. He returned to Stemilt as a project manager, then an Executive VP and finally, in 2005, took the helm as President. 

Mathison took some time to share with us the passion, philosophy and practices that drive their third-generation family business. 

What are you most proud of as an ag employer?

I’m proud that we’ve developed a company that can provide either year-round work or seasonal work that is consistent, and that people feel like they can commit to us. I always feel like part of my purpose on earth is to break cycle of poverty through ag, and part of doing that is to create a business that creates an environment where people can make a career in agriculture. 

What’s been one of the most positive programs you’ve implemented? 

We provide free health care services and free prescription drugs to all of our full time and seasonal team members as well as their spouses and all of their children. The program has been successful. What we’ve found, is that providing affordable health care is one thing, but having seamless access for people that don’t have a lot of extra time because of work and other constraints allows people to take advantage of the care and get healthier. We have people in our health program that actually track them over time. Our doctor and nurses are committed to the individual and to improving their health. We engage our employees in setting goals for weight loss or setting a diabetic index, and help them through their personal health goals. 

What sparked the health program?

We want to find people we enjoy being around and grow old together. Part of that is understanding that bad things happen to good people. Having this health care clinic means that when people get sick--and everyone does--we overcome some of these hurdles that people have in getting to the doctor and maintaining a paycheck through a minor or major health issue. 

How do we help our people who don’t have a lot of margin in life overcome health challenges? When someone gets sick and gets a bad case of the flu, if they get treated quickly, they can get back to work quickly. As soon as they start to feel bad, they go to the doctor and take a half day off. We treat people as people vs. treating people through policies. [For example, a policy might be that] you have to go to the doctor and get a note if you’re sick. That sounds simple, but for many people in certain circumstances, it’s really hard. Maybe the mom’s on day shift, and the dad’s on night shift. Getting sick is a huge barrier for some people, and they might accidentally get terminated since they’re not working, and they could lose their child care. And if they don’t have child care, they can’t go back to work. [Our health program is] a way to help our people through challenging circumstances. 

What keeps you up at night as an ag employer? 

What keeps me up at night is when people who work for us don’t feel like they can be their own advocate. They might fear bringing up issues to their supervisors. We have a great company, but where we have issues is when people feel like they can’t talk to their supervisors about problems. It’s always amazing because, once they put an issue on table, we usually get it resolved quickly because initially it wasn’t a very big deal. 

What’s the most important reason that workers return to your company year after year? 

For our seasonal people, I want folks to come back because they felt like they had clear expectations, they had good working relationships with their managers, and they made a lot of money. 

What is something you’d like to understand better about your employees?

I guess I’d like to understand better what keeps them from sharing their feelings honestly with their managers and crew leaders and what little things can we do to help make their experience better at Stemilt. 

What’s an opportunity for improving employee retention and satisfaction that you’re most excited about?

This coming year we want to work with our teams to showcase the people that have been really productive and to try to motivate others to be more productive. We really want to incentivize excellence and inspire people to get to that next level of effectiveness--and to have fun with it. We’re looking at different ways to give monetary incentives to people that are more productive, but also to make it fun and highlight people that have great attitudes and are great team members. 

What’s an example of how Stemilt has improved health and safety that has had a positive effect on your business?

Through the clinic, we’ve been able to get people in front of a healthcare professional within minutes of an accident. And what we’ve found, is that by properly diagnosing them and letting them know they’ll be ok, and telling them here’s what you need to do (for example, get ice on the injury), these the little things get people back to work faster and make them feel like they were cared for. Most people feel ashamed that they got hurt. So how do you get people to not feel that shame? [We think the answer is in] making people feel cared for. Through our safety and health care programs we’ve seen improved retention, and in terms of our health care costs, we’ve actually seen our total health care costs go down instead of always go up. 

What do you think ag labor will look like in Eastern WA in 10 years?

I think the ag industry will continue to grow. However, in some of these rural communities the need for on-farm housing is going to continue to go up, so I see that the guest worker programs are going to increase. That’s going to be different from what we’ve experienced in the past where we saw farmworkers moving permanently to these rural areas. The need for more people in these areas will continue to be seasonal in nature. 

If you had a magic wand to address one specific public policy issue that affects you as an ag employer, what would it be and what would your solution be?

It would be to create a guest worker program that has some element of portability to it. I think there are a lot of hard working people that want to come to the US and work. The guest worker program we have is a good mechanism, but the balance of power in our current H2A program doesn’t give workers an effective way [to change employers] if they have a problem with their employer. Currently, they have to go home, paying their own expenses, rather than just going to work for someone else in the area. If we could do that, employers would be motivated to have a good culture on their teams. We’d be competing for a larger pool of guest workers. We’d compete to be best employers for those people. 

What do you wish prospective candidates knew about your company?

I wish that people knew that Stemilt is for those people that want to make a career in ag and to join a great team. I wish they knew that we have a lot of people that started out working in the orchards and move on to become sales people, IT people, accountants, and managers and that we’re always looking for people to promote. A lot of people might say to themselves, I’m just here to do this job, but we’re looking for the next set of leaders in our company. And the best ones come from within and started at the bottom. 

What do you wish customers and potential customers knew about you as an ag employer?

I wish that they would not only see all the programs we have for our team members and the benefits like the clinic and the 4% 401K match, but that they would understand the why behind that. We see our business as a way to enrich the lives of the farmworkers and all the people that work at Stemilt. We still have to trade fruit for dollars and match price and volume, but we wish our customers would understand the why and join us in those philosophical values. We do have customers that believe that and that’s why they buy from Stemilt.