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How the (Pacific North)west Was Won

Growers in the Pacific Northwest continue to adapt to the evolving region, offering innovation in the produce sector.
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Warm days and cool nights. A weather forecast like that would likely produce a very enjoyable vacation no matter what the destination. In the Pacific Northwest, this climate is the norm, and it is one of the many attributes that make the region—which includes Washington, Oregon, Eastern Idaho, and British Columbia, Canada—the ideal locale for growing produce.

“The climate is just about perfect for growing apples, cherries and pears,” says Dan Wohlford, national marketing representative for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, based in Wenatchee, Wash. “We get a lot of sunshine, and we get cool nights. Sunshine helps the fruit and the trees grow very well. Those cool nights bring on the fantastic color that we get in our apples and cherries.”

Industry observers say that while the climate is a huge boon to growing fresh produce, the region’s volcanic ash soil along with the people devoted to the land and sustainable farming also give the Pacific Northwest an advantage.

“An important part of our growing region is the soil, the water and the mountainous regions,” says Kathy Stephenson, marketing communications director for USA Pears, which is branded by the Pear Bureau Northwest and based in Portland, Ore. “Our soil in the growing regions of the Northwest is nutrient-rich from volcanic ash deposits. The soil has been deposited across the Northwest from volcanoes and distributed by ancient flooding during the ice age.”

The mountainous regions also offer a unique source of moisture, observers add. Orchards and farms, particularly in Washington, do not experience the same coastal weather patterns that Seattle is known for, so they rely heavily on the rivers and streams for moisture. “Over on the eastern side [of the state], for all intents and purposes, we’re a desert,” says Wohlford. “There’s just not a lot of moisture coming from the sky for us, which is why we rely so much on the Columbia River and the Cascade Mountains for moisture.”

While the temperate weather, rich soil, water and mountains provide nearly perfect growing conditions for the region, observers say that the farmers, growers and ranchers have the expertise—and history—to contribute to the growth of the industry. “They keep themselves up-to-date on growing techniques and are constantly making themselves better by trying to figure out how to grow the fruit more efficiently and in more sustainable ways,” Wohlford says.

In addition to implementing more efficient growing practices and sustainable farming, growers with storied pasts in the Pacific Northwest have been adapting to and keeping up with the evolution and challenges of the area. An early frost and climate change, which has effected when and how long the seasons last, for example, can be threatening.

“While in a sense we have the warm days and cool nights, we sometimes have a frost in June, which will freeze the potatoes,” says Kevin Stanger, president of marketing for Wada Farms, based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. “We can also have an early frost at harvest, so we generally try to be done by Oct. 10. It doesn’t happen a lot but sometimes, we’ll have a cold September night where temperatures drop, and it risks the potatoes freezing in the ground. Those kind of things can definitely give us concern.”

While an early frost can potentially wreak havoc on a crop, longer growing seasons also present challenges, says Kimberlee Chambers, sustainability manager for Organically Grown Co., an employee- and grower-owned organic produce distributor, based in Portland, Ore. “Growers are working a lot more on season extension and on winter varieties. We’re seeing a lot more production throughout the year,” Chambers says. “In some cases, we’re seeing some items come in a month earlier, and then later on as well.”

An earlier or later season means more labor is needed, and growers can struggle to find the best solution. Organically Grown Co. is exploring ways to support growers and understand the critically important farm labor issue, Chambers says. “When you have compressed seasons, for example in the Holdover Valley with pear harvesters, as the season progressed, they would work their way to high elevation, but now the season is super short, and everything is coming off at the same time,” she says. “For organic and fresh market products, it’s a lot more labor intensive.”  

Ship(ping) Shape

Logistics can be another obstacle that growers in the Pacific Northwest must work to overcome. The cost of freighting a product to heavily populated areas in the country can pose a problem. “The major challenge is being so far from the large population centers in the Eastern U.S.,” says Grant Kitamura, president of Murakami Produce Co., an Ontario, Ore.-based company that grows and packs onions. “Being in the Northwest corner of the U.S., we are sometimes far from our customers. We select the best varieties for shelf-life or storability in order for our product to make the trip across the country and provide high quality onions for our customers.”  

Shipping costs are not something The Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) takes lightly. For 79 years the Eagle, Idaho-based association has been working with Idaho shippers and growers to assist their efforts in all areas, says Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail/international for the IPC. “We know we have to add and create value in our offerings to offset transportation costs from our area,” Pemsler says. “Our success shows that we continue to do so. For example, our biggest market is New York. While it is the furthest and most expensive market from a freight perspective, they know a difference and require Idaho.”

Observers note that items made in the Northwest are important to people across the U.S., especially as supporting more local companies continues to grow. Litehouse, the Sandpoint, Idaho-based maker of refrigerated dressings and dips, has manufacturing plants in Michigan and Utah to help its supply chain and ability to ship to customers throughout the U.S.

“Litehouse products are consistent with those who live in the Northwest, or to those who live far away,” says Stacey Miller, director of business development for Litehouse. “We offer quality products that provide fresh taste and enhance the eating experience of the consumer. We have a great marketing team that is able to tailor messaging across the different regions in the U.S.”

Steeped in Community

Despite the challenges, observers say the Pacific Northwest community is often willing to help each other out if another is in a bind. “There is so much farming experience in this area that you always have a source to help with problem solving and someone to bounce ideas off of should the need arise,” says Lori Hickey, marketing manager for HBF International, based in McMinnville, Ore. “Success only improves our region and makes the area strong and helps our communities we all live in.”

Innovation has contributed to the continued success of the region, says Steve Lutz, vice president of marketing for CMI, based in Wenatchee, Wash. “The industry is incredibly innovative,” Lutz says. “When you look at the product mix that’s coming out of the Northwest, and CMI specifically, we’re selling a huge number of apples that weren’t available 10 years ago. The product line and mix is being reinvented as we go.”

This year, CMI will be joining the Oppenheimer Group and Rainier in the co-marketing of the Jazz, Envy and Pacific Rose apple varieties. CMI’s lineup also includes the exclusive rights to Kiku brand apples, the popular Ambrosia variety and Kanzi. “That’s an incredible line up,” Lutz says. “Those are probably the six strongest varietals apples available.”

Domex Superfresh Growers will market its proprietary apple variety called the Autumn Glory, which will be available this October through spring, says Howard Nager vice president of marketing for the Yakima, Wash.-based company. “The apple has a crisp, firm flesh, hints of cinnamon and caramel, and will remind consumers that they can ‘experience autumn all year.’”

As some growers work to innovate their product offerings, others are utilizing new packaging to make their items more convenient for consumers. “We work with our packaging people closely in developing and building the packaging needs that the consumers want,” says Stanger, noting that Wada Farms was one of the first growers to unveil packaging that enables consumers to microwave potatoes in a bag. “We’re always looking at different things so we can be ahead of the curve and make potatoes a more convenient item for the consumer.”

Useful training and marketing tools for retailers is also important for Pacific Northwest growers to expand their reach to a broader audience. For example, the Pear Bureau Northwest has tools that retailers and produce merchandisers can use to tell the region’s story and share important tips with consumers, says Stephenson.

While new product innovations, merchandising and marketing tools serve as ways for growers to reach consumers, observers say it is the partnership between retailers and growers that is essential. “We really support customers, and we try to specialize our accounts with what they need,” says Chambers. “We do a lot of engagement, interaction, bring opportunities to them, ask them what they want to address, and how we can collaborate and how we can move this forward. They are really treated like partners.” 

Pacific Northwest Meat Up

Produce is not the only fresh product that thrives in the Pacific Northwest. The region’s climate and water sources prove to be optimal for raising cattle and farming rainbow trout. In fact, when most consumers think of premium quality beef, Midwest corn-fed beef is first to mind, says Jay Theiler, executive director of marketing for Agri Beef Co., based in Boise, Idaho.

“The Northwest provides a very comfortable environment for raising cattle. The mild climate, abundant resources and access to a variety of sustainable feed ingredients such as wheat, potatoes, corn and hay all contribute to the exceptional quality of Northwest grain-fed beef,”  Theiler says. “As a region, we are producing more prime and choice grade beef now than ever before. The focused efforts of producers throughout the Northwest, including our own Double R Ranch in Loomis, Wash., have resulted in vast improvements in cattle health and quality.”  

The Pacific Northwest is an ideal locale for farming rainbow trout as well, says Kurt Myers, vice president of sales and marketing for Clear Springs Food, based in Buhl, Idaho. The company, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in September, has been farming rainbow trout along the Snake River since its inception.
“It is the best place to grow rainbow trout due to the water from the East Snake River Plane Aquifer,” Myers says. “The water recharges every year from the snow pack in the north of Idaho, the volcanic rock acts as a natural filter, and the pure, clean water is routed through cement raceways, which delivers a consistently clean flavor of rainbow trout.”

Myers notes that domestic production of seafood is very rare as more than 80 percent of seafood is imported. “In seafood, the key consumer question is country of origin,” he says. “Rainbow trout is mild tasting and therefore, very versatile from a culinary perspective. Once a consumers try it, they realize how good it tastes, and as a lean protein, it is very nutritious.”

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