Good Fruit Grower

December 2016

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56 DECEMBER 2016 GOOD FRUIT GROWER W hen Bill Zirkle's father, Lester, was run- ning the company, one of his primary customers was a Portland, Oregon, retailer that had one store with a large grocery department: Fred Meyer. "They had a unique relationship. Whenever Dad had a load of 280 boxes of exceptional stuff, he'd say, 'Bring it down, Lester,'" Bill recalled. Communication with the customers is just as import- ant today as it was then — perhaps more so. Success requires meeting the demands of an ever-changing market. Flexibility at the packing house level is crucial. "We never pack the same thing two days in a row anymore. That cuts into the packing house's profitability and effec- tiveness probably, but that's the way it is now," said Mark Zirkle, Bill's son. At the same time, Zirkle Fruit's sales desk, Rainier Fruit Co., has given the company front-row seats for watching industry trends and allowing the company to act on them, he said. "We've made our share of mistakes for sure, but it's simply planting what the consumer wants." Zirkle and the growers it packs for all take a long-term look at the market, he said. "How we pack, what we pack, when. The customer doesn't care if you are waiting for the market to go up on a specific variety. They just want it now. They want a supply. That takes a lot of teamwork, a lot of trust in each other." Earlier this year, Rainier Fruit signed on as a multi- year sponsor to the Boston Marathon, supplying some 75,000 organic apples to the event, and has since worked to expand the marketing effort to the entire running com- munity with additional events and a #RunWithRainier social media campaign. Roughly 85 percent of the com- pany's business is in the domestic market. Zirkle Fruit has worked to stay ahead of consumer demand in part by installing the latest in packing tech- nologies in its warehouses. A dedicated organic line, built in 2015 and featuring an eight-lane sizer and color and defect sorter, reduced the potential for cross-contamination from conventional fruit. A year later, the company built a new cherry ware- house that includes 85,000 square feet of packing area, a 48-lane sizer with defect sorting, and flexibility for differ- ent packaging options. The warehouse with the organic line also has increased energy efficiency with insulated concrete walls, upgraded roof insulation, LED lighting and 336 solar panels that generate over 134,000 kilowatt hours annually. Meanwhile, the cherry warehouse features 483 LED light fixtures for roughly a 40 percent reduction in watt usage, as well as 15 miles of underground conduit and piping and an underground glycol refrigeration sys- tem for a safer, cleaner work environment. Several years ago, Zirkle Fruit replaced propane-pow- ered forklifts with electric ones. However, the new build- ings were designed to eliminate forklift traffic from the floors entirely, both to improve food safety and employee safety. Box-making equipment also now sits in a mez- zanine above the packing room or off to the side — a decision that also improves food and employee safety, but was market-driven. "I don't think, 15 years ago, we would have envisioned that because, frankly, we didn't need it," Mark said. "Then, we had a box and maybe two or three lids. Now, there's 15 different boxes, different-sized cartons — not STAYING AHEAD Communication is key for Zirkle sales team. by Shannon Dininny photos by TJ Mullinax Mark Zirkle above one of the apple packing lines at Zirkle's Selah facility. "A good grower who's a smart grower, growing the right things, will be just fine. —Bill Zirkle

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