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A family's love affair with cherries, pits and all

Feb 19, 2013


On Feb. 22, George Washington’s birthday, the story undoubtedly will be retold about our first president, who, as a young lad, could not tell a lie and admitted that he cut down his father’s favorite cherry tree with his little hatchet.

McMinnvillan Kay Schrepel, “matriarch” of the Schrepel family, could be relieved that none of the Schrepel young ones ever had a hatchet and was similarly inclined.

But, oh, the opportunities George would have had at Fruithill Inc., the Schrepel operation, where cherries are a principal crop.

Today, Fruithill is an American dream come true. It started with the vision of a great-grandfather, who at age 15 left school, worked, saved his money and bought 80 acres near Yamhill. He saved more, bought another 500 acres.

When his only daughter, Anne, married Oliver Schrepel, he gave the bridegroom $1,000. The couple bought farmland, and the Schrepel “dynasty” began.

Then came another generation: Keith, son of Oliver and Anne. Although he had not intended to follow in his parents’ footsteps, Keith, after marrying Kay McDonald in 1945, graduating from Oregon State and being discharged after service in World War II, decided otherwise. The couple moved to the family farm in northern Yamhill County to partner with Keith’s parents.

Kay, Keith’s bride, was born in Redmond, and in 1935, her parents moved to a farm near Yamhill, They had a cow, but Kay never learned to milk, although her two sisters acquired that skill. Kay instead practiced the piano, often serving as accompanist for soloists and for the Yamhill High chorus. Classmates teased Kay by asking her always to play “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” substituting the words,

“And on the farm he had three daughters ... .”

After business college in Portland, she attended Oregon State College, taking home economics and business courses. Those business courses were put to good use: she became bookkeeper for the Schrepel operation, no simple task. In some years, as many as 200 pickers were hired, paid by the pound, and every bucketful they picked had to be weighed.

The Schrepel family grew. Keith and Kay had two sons. So, too, the farm operation grew, becoming more diversified — with accompanying problems and difficulties.

Deer continually gave them a valiant tussle. “The deer could just about demolish a young tree,” said Kay. Keith and Kay put their young sons to work, paying them one cent each to fill small bags with deer repellent to hang on the trees. The boys’ pay for putting sugar in every pail of cherries was 25 cents per hour.

And nature dealt the Schrepels stiff challenges — such as the Columbus Day Storm in 1962. The mighty wind toppled many trees, requiring enormous effort to straighten and brace them.

Nature also handed out crop failures — early snows that broke trees, crop loads that did likewise. Mount St. Helens acted up.

And something else: The pits in “pie” cherries were a headache. Early on, the Schrepels began delivering pie cherries to Bradley Pie Co. in Portland. Bradley Co. had a pitting machine and in 1950 suggested that the pitter be moved to the Schrepel farm and the pitted cherries be delivered to a cold storage warehouse. With that, the Schrepels became cherry processors.

Recognizing the need for a more reliable water supply, in 1954 Keith and Kay bought an inactive sawmill at Yamhill that was served by city water. Some of its remodeled buildings became a farm shop and primitive processing facility.

The Bradley-Schrepel relationship resulted in the Schrepels buying what had become Bradley Frozen Foods. When the Bradleys required more space for the company that eventually became Mrs. Smith’s West Coast Pie Co., necessitating a move to McMinnville, the resulting vacated space was used by the Schrepels for expanded fruit processing activities, and plums were added to their line.

Hazelnuts became another addition in the early 1970s; 1990 saw aggressive replanting. In 1996, they planted grapes — then planted more. A recent innovation was the quick-freeze tunnel. They can now process several fruits simultaneously — and around the clock. Electronic defect and pit detection equipment has been added. The Schrepels are licensed farm labor contractors and commercial pesticide operators.

And in 1999, came a signal honor: Keith was named to the OSU College Agricultural Sciences “Diamond Pioneer” Agricultural Career Achievement Registry. He passed away in 2002.

Today, sons Mark and Lee, along with other family members, head Schrepel operations. Mark is president, in charge of production. Lee is executive vice president, overseeing sales, logistics and administration. Brandon Cable, Mark’s son-in-law, is field manager, and in charge of contract labor. Lee’s daughter, Becky Gagnier, is plant manager. And another generation waits in the wings. In all, five generations have been involved in the business. Presently, there are three, ages 7 to 62.

But Fruithill’s most important happening, perhaps, was in l966, when Kay and Keith went on a shopping trip after a huge cherry crop required a harvest crew of hundreds. Off they headed to agriculture equipment shows looking for a means of preparing for future labor costs — and even shortages. For $16,000, they bought a machine, made by Kilby Manufacturing Co., that was used to harvest prunes in California.

That purchase resulted in eventual mechanization of stone fruit harvests worldwide — a momentous development.

And recently there came an award.

On Nov. l5, 20l2, at the “Excellence in Family Business Awards,” presented by the Austin Family Business Program, Fruithill, Inc., won the Small Family Business award. Another Yamhill County winner, Coelho Winery in Amity, won the Micro Family Business award.

And in attendance at that banquet, sitting regally proud, was the Schrepel “matriarch” Kay.

Today, she lives in a McMinnville home festooned with cherries: a knitting bag with the imprinted reminder, “Cherry lovers have good taste”; a wreath of cherries; pictures of the fruit; cherry coasters and towels.

And as Feb. 22 draws near, will Kay also be making the traditional cherry pie as a tribute to that important Fruithill crop, and to George?

Well, not exactly.

Says Kay, “I’m really not much of a pie maker. I didn’t often make pies.”

Not even cherry pies.

But then, as if apologetically acknowledging deserved tribute to cherries and to George, she adds, “But I do have a recipe.”

Elaine Rohse can be reached at rohse5257@comcast.net.

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