Story by Knute Berger | Photography by Matt Mills McKnight
Cashmere — You enter the dry side of the Cascades at Leavenworth, the Bavarian-themed tourist village in a stunning alpine setting, and follow Highway 2 downhill into the Wenatchee Valley. Forests give way to fruit stands and you come to a town that produces one of the Northwest’s most mysterious and popular products: Aplets & Cotlets.
More than one newcomer to the region has asked, “What the hell is an Aplet?” No, it’s not an app for your iPhone. The best way to find out is turning off the highway and onto Aplet Way in Cashmere and follow the signs to Liberty Orchards.
Liberty Orchards used to be actual orchards, but now is merely the name of the company founded by two Armenian immigrants who, nearly 100 years ago, began producing a sweet candy made from fruit and nuts. It was a creative way for them to sell surplus fruit in hard times. The first was made from apples — the Aplet in the 1920s, then the apricot, the Cotlet, followed in the early ’30s. They are a modified version of the confection known as Turkish delight, little rectangles of soft candy dusted in powdered sugar. Washingtonians and tourists buy them and give them as gifts by the millions. The company says they get 80,000 visitors a year. Liberty Orchards has put Cashmere on the “Made in Washington” map.
Their candy factory is a modest building in downtown Cashmere, which resembles the all-American town from Back to the Future. The town of about 3,000 features restored storefronts and has a tidy, touristy feel, but there are challenges — like housing — going on behind the scenes.
You enter the factory through a gift shop filled with every version of an Aplet or Cotlet or their sisters and brothers in assorted fruit flavors — sugared, sugar-free, gluten-free, nut-free, chocolate-dipped. Free samples abound. The thing about them: Even if you don’t like them — and I don’t — it is nearly impossible to leave without an armful of boxed candies. During the peak Aplets & Cotlets season — July through December — 8,000 to 12,000 pounds of them roll off the assembly lines manned mostly, judging from a recent tour, by Latino workers.
The fruit in Aplets & Cotlets comes from concentrates produced in Yakima, but Cashmere is surrounded by apple, pear, apricot and cherry orchards. While the fruit in the candies comes from farther afield these days, orchards near and far are picked by seasonal workers, most from Mexico and Central America. Not far from the factory beyond Cashmere’s tourist façade is a new kind of community where some of the workers live.
Cashmere is a suburb of Wenatchee, and we learned Seattle isn’t the only place with a housing problem. According to Rufus Woods, editor and publisher of the Wenatchee World, a shortage of housing and rising prices in Chelan County is the No. 1 problem in the area. The median home price in the Wenatchee Valley has risen to just over $280,000. The paper attributes the all-time high mostly to an influx of retirees, agriculture and healthcare workers, and families looking for more space. Inventories of properties for sale have dropped dramatically and rental vacancies are down to 1 percent. We also heard complaints about Seattleites buying second homes here. In King County, we’re trying to coordinate to deal with homelessness. In Chelan County, the mayors of the county’s five cities — Wenatchee, Cashmere, Chelan, Leavenworth and Entiat — have pledged to work together on the housing “crisis.”
A big part of the valley’s harvest workforce, which peaks in the summer and fall, are the migrant, resident and temporary workers who work six or seven months a year picking and packing fruit. Housing that workforce in livable, sustainable conditions is crucial.
One answer is tucked away in Cashmere: a non-profit housing project called Brender Creek, which offers housing for domestic migrants and seasonal guest workers. Built by the Yakima-based non-profit Washington Growers League with the help of a state grant, the idea is to create decent living conditions for the workers, and help the growers collectively house their workforce.
Brender Creek features two-story buildings around an open, grass-lawn commons area. The buildings have shared kitchens and living areas and four-bunk bedrooms. The complex houses 270 workers, who must have jobs in agriculture and hold green cards or H-2A worker visas. Built in 2015, it resembles a college-dorm complex. Cody Chrismer of the Grower’s League oversees their housing program. He says the intention of Brender’s design is to help foster a sense of community among the workers, who are far from home up to 10 months of the year. And it beats the old days, he says, when “housing” could consist of “two apple bins and a tarp.”
We visited Brender Creek at the end of the workday when pickers were just back from the orchards. It was quiet, like a suburban cul-de-sac. These commuters, who drive to and from the fields, are working 12 or more hours per day, starting as early as 4 a.m., six or seven days per week. Tyler Dionne, who manages the complex, says they make between $15 and $20 an hour and can earn $30,000 or more in a season, much of which is sent home to their families.
Inside one unit, which houses about 32 people, enticing smells wafted out of the kitchen while dinner was cooked. Chrismer says workers often come from the same villages in Mexico, and at dinnertime they use the free Wi-Fi to contact their loved ones and get family recipes to share.
Outside this evening, the mostly male residents sat and rested in the shade of porches; another group gathered around an outdoor grill to prepare dinner. A van rolled up behind one unit and a man named Mohamed was selling pants and leather jackets out of it. His customers, including some women and kids, were camera shy.
The daily cost of shelter at Brender Creek is generally paid by growers. Housing like this is a growing trend in the region. There is more like it in nearby Malaga at Sage Bluff, and plans are slated for a larger project in Mattawa. The housing is more humane and better quality than before, addressing one of the longstanding issues in the rich history of the state’s farm workers movement. It’s necessary for a crucial workforce in a region experiencing unprecedented real-estate pressures.
Dionne describes the Cashmere area as “a valley of fruit.” If you eat or give away a box of Aplets & Cotlets, it’s good to know a little more about the places and the people it comes from — beyond the gift shop.
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