Chelan celebrates 40 years of bringing produce to Southeast

Chelan Produce Co. has been in business since 1978, when owner Dave Kensinger got stuck with a truckload of apples in Seattle and hopped the ferry to sell in Juneau. Customers around Southast have been loyal ever since. He and his wife Mona Christian now sell exclusively in Sitka and Petersburg on alternating weekends. Martha Pearson shops at Chelan’s mid-July market, a peak time for berries, apricots, peaches and plums. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

For the past 40 years, Dave Kensinger and his wife Mona Christian have been running Chelan Produce Co., bringing fruits and vegetables to Petersburg and Sitka on alternating weekends in summertime. It all began with an apple.

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Kensinger was in Seattle in the mid-1970s. His friends were growing organic apples and he was selling. One day, he got stuck with a truckload from Chelan, Washington that wouldn’t sell. They were coated in Diatomaceous earth, which appeared suspect to customers used to waxy fruit. Luckily at the time, the Alaska Marine Highway Service left from downtown Seattle.

“So I put my truck on the ferry and went to Juneau and started selling apples. And that’s how I started doing it,” Kensinger said.

Dave Kensinger speaks with employee Fabio Domenig. His market is assisted by multiple volunteers; he estimates he’s worked with over 1000 people in the last 40 years. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Forty years later, Chelan is a household name in Southeast, bringing honey mangoes from Mexico and cherries fresh from Rainier. Kensinger named the business after those fated apples. He’s like a traveling salesman for the senses, building pallets and picking produce he knows customers will like. I visited the market on a bright day in July and Kensinger piled my hand with fruit samples: cherries, peaches and his favorite – honey mangoes. His favorite apple? Jazz.

Some of his customers have been sampling since the beginning, like the Fleming family. Tori Fleming’s first memory of the fruit man was when a watermelon rolled out of the back of her family truck.

“The watermelon rolled out of the back of the truck and splattered all over Sawmill Creek Road in front of all my friends. I was mortified. There was Dave flagging us back to come back and he gave us another watermelon. Since then, my family has been great friends with Dave,” Fleming said.

Keeping prices low is a difficult enterprise in a world where farms are shrinking, shipping is more expensive, and state ferry system has been significantly reduced. Now, Kensinger ships exclusively with Alaska Marine Lines. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Kensinger does all he can to keep prices low, but the supply side of his business is changing. Chelan had to stop selling in Wrangell, Kake and Angoon when ferry service diminished. They now rely exclusively on Alaska Marine Lines, transporting the produce from Seattle to Sitka.

“[Sitka gets] two barges a week owned by the same company. That brings everything up here that we use. That’s the biggest change that’s happened. There’s not a lot of options. For years, there was five different barge companies in Southeast, Alaska. You could get in and out of any community with the ferries in two days,” Kensinger said.

There’s other changes too. Growers are fewer and smaller scale in America and the national immigration crackdown has made labor difficult to find. All these costs, driven by global and national forces, hit the Sitka customer squarely in the pocketbook.

“Costs are going up. Ultimately, anybody that’s in business, they have to pass the costs onto the consumers. So whether that’s me, Chelan Produce, or your local grocery stores, they have no option but to pass these costs on because they won’t be able to stay in business,” Kensinger said.

Rising transportation costs have hit Southeast customers especially. Take, for example, an ear of corn.

“Just to get an ear of corn from Seattle up to here costs 45 cents now. So that’s why you don’t rarely see corn [at ten cobs] for $1 anymore.”

Kensinger is candid in saying that volunteers have made all the difference these past four decades.

“I’ve probably had over 1000 different people work for me over the years. You know somebody or somebody knows somebody that’s worked with Chelan at some point in time,” Kensinger said with a chuckle.

Kensinger and Christian are approaching retirement age. They’re not sure how much longer they can keep doing what they’re doing, but plan to stay in Southeast. But for now, the popular Sitka question, “Is it a Chelan weekend?” can be answered with a yes.