On-farm packing makes small orchard feasible
to pack their fruit, not someone else.
By Geraldine Warner
In an industry where expansion and consolidation are the major trends, making a nine-acre organic apple and pear orchard pay its way is not easy. But, at least, the owners of Jerzy Boyz Ranch at Chelan, Washington, don't have to worry about receiving a bill from the packing house this year.
Jim and Carmela Cook, Scott Beaton, and Wynne Weinreb established the orchard at Howard Flat ten years ago and sent their first crop to a Chelan cooperative to be packed. But it didn't take them long to figure out that having someone else pack their fruit was not financially feasible.
"We just came to the conclusion we weren't going to be able to pay for packing fruit because the expense is just extraordinary," Weinreb said, noting that after packing charges are deducted, there is often little left for the grower--and organic producers have higher production costs to cover.
They were faced with a choice. Either they could send their fruit to a warehouse and find jobs outside the apple industry to help pay the costs, or they could save the money and pay themselves to do the work.
They opted for the latter.
Cook runs the orchard, while Weinreb heads sales and packing, and does field work. Beaton, Weinreb's husband, runs a recycling project in Chelan and works at the orchard on his days off. Cook's wife Carmela, who works at a Chelan motel, helps out in her spare time and during picking and packing.
For several years, they rented packing facilities but when Beaton recently inherited some money, they decided to invest it in Jerzy Boyz. They used it to build their own packing house at the orchard last year.
"Jerzy Boyz is very lucky to have gotten that gift, because it's going to make it easier for us to survive," Weinreb said.
She said each of the four people involved has expertise in different areas. They bounce ideas off each other and support each other when decisions have to be made. "We all have a big part in what we're doing."
Farming is not easy, she added, "But for those of us who do it, we know we're growing really good fruit for people, and that's rewarding for us. We make a wage, so we keep ourselves employed and are able to bring in income. In this valley, jobs are limited. We don't make profits every year, and when we do make them, they go back into the farm."
Doing their own packing has other advantages, they have found. Since their production is so small--about 4,000 boxes--much of their crop is sold before it is packed, and by doing it themselves, they can pack to meet their customers' preferences.
"The up side is we can control all the processes, and what we come out with is a quality product," said Weinreb. "I sell them a better pack for a better price. The thing that a lot of our buyers tell me is our boxes look hand custom packed. I always take that as a compliment."
Weinreb said their goal has been to value the flavor and nutritional content of the fruit as much, if not more than, visual characteristics.
Whereas some warehouses create their own high color standards, Jerzy Boyz packs to state requirements, and are able to sell all their fruit. They even have people wanting to buy their culls.
They have been charging $1.50 per pound for premium Washington Extra Fancy grade and $1 per pound for their No. 2 grade with cosmetic flaws. They sell them in 43-pound boxes, 25-pound boxes, and gift packs.
Supply and demand
Just as with conventional fruit, the market for organic apples is governed by supply and demand. Demand for organic produce is increasing, but organic acreage is expanding, too. Some apple growers are hoping that by switching to organic they can receive higher prices and save their farms.
Jerzy Boyz' own production will increase as trees mature and more acreage comes into production. They developed the nine acres over a period of time, planting the last block with Honeycrisp this spring.
So far, they have been selling out of fruit by January or February, but they've brought a 400-amp electrical service to the property to allow the option of adding a controlled-atmosphere storage facility in the future.
Weinreb, a former research librarian, said she works hard on promotions and tries to find more buyers each year to absorb their increasing production. She sends samples to potential buyers across the country, and has launched a Web site at <www.jerzyboyz.com>. The Web site address is printed on the stickers that go on each apple, which allows them to receive direct feedback from consumers.
"It's been very effective, because people want to feel close to farms," she said. "They want to know what's going on there and be a part of it. It's an opportunity to visit the farm without leaving their computer."
The Web site has also generated some sales.
Although much of the retail industry is consolidating, Weinreb still finds buyers who don't mind that Jerzy Boyz will be sold out by January or doesn't have more than a few boxes in a certain variety and size.
"I have found people really work hard in order to be able to accommodate us," she said.
Most of her customers are organic markets. For supermarket chains, the first consideration is price, and Weinreb said she tries to price her apples at the top end of the market, partly to compensate for high production costs, but also to associate them with quality.
"If we price them too low, people won't recognize the quality we have," she said.
Cook said he's hoping that it's not always necessary to expand in order to survive. "I believe there's a point where you can put a cap on your business and be comfortable with that," he said. "That's what I'm hoping to achieve."
He said he looks for ways to micromanage the orchard and produce the greatest amount of income by doing a lot of research and hard work. There's the possibility of expanding the packing house so that they could generate more income from packing other growers' fruit.
Both Cook and Beaton are from New Jersey--hence the name of the business--but met in Washington State. They both did orchard work for about 20 years before establishing their own orchard.
Cook said he learned a great deal from working with Doyle Fleming at Orondo, Washington, and shares his orchard and business philosophies. Fleming has always had a modest lifestyle and whenever the orchard made a profit, he put the money back into it, Cook said, whereas other growers might have squandered their potential.
"I was with Doyle when he started," Cook said, "and I know how hard
he had to work."
Copyright 1999, Good Fruit Grower,105 South 18th Street, Suite 217,
Yakima, Washington 98901