The consumer packaging industry recently bestowed its top awards on Kraft, Hershey’s and a company run by a Hood River farmer whose primary business motive is to preserve the home orchard business for his son.
The “Golden Mummy Award” sponsored by Exxon Mobil Chemical, recognizes consumer products which use Exxon’s petrochemical films in its packaging.
Gorge Delights, the Hood River company started by third-generation orchardists Gary, Mike and Rick Willis and fellow growers Mike and Ken Goe, began marketing an all-natural pear bar two years ago to diversify markets and increase dwindling margins for their produce, according to a press release.
Sharing the industry honor is Pak-Sel, of Clackamas, a flexible packaging company that came up with the innovative two-ply design that addresses Gorge Delights’ dual marketing strategy: the natural, matte finish of the exterior film is designed to appeal to the natural foods and outdoor recreation retail market.
The high-barrier inside film, which keeps the product fresh for two years, has attracted interest from NASA’s Food Technology Center for possible inclusion in the Space Program and from the U.S. Military, which is considering the bars as meal supplements. The 40-gram Gorge Delights PearBar, the equivalent to “eating two fresh pears,” is available in 200 stores in the Northwest.
Gorge Delights has also developed and is selling an 18-gram snack bar to public schools in the region. But between the pear bar’s two sheets of polypropylene film lies a bigger story of how a small business, with the help of the USDA, applied American ingenuity and resourcefulness in the fight to preserve family farming against foreign imports and multi-national conglomerates.
Lower-cost produce overseas from Chile, Mexico and Asia and locally from large corporate farms in neighboring Washington State have driven profit margins down over the years. Larger harvests and more land were needed to stay in business. As family orchards went out of business, they sold their land to neighbors. “We get the same price for our produce as we did five years ago, and yet, our costs have increased 20 percent in the same time,” said Willis, whose family apple and pear orchard has grown from 30 acres when his grandfather started to 285 acres today. “We were losing ground fast. I wanted to do something to make sure my son would be able to keep farming 20 years from now.” Willis joined with another Hood River farming family, father and son Mike and Ken Goe, to start Gorge Delights in 2002. Tara McHugh, Ph.D., of the USDA’s processed foods division, leads a team of 11 Ph.D.s and 15 support scientists to develop value-added technologies that businesses can then apply to create new markets for U.S. farmers.
McHugh’s team first helped the company find a way to market fresh sliced pears in resealable bags by inhibiting discoloration and extending shelf life for fresh pears to 21 days. McHugh then found a use for second grade pears by developing the all-natural pear bar.
Gorge Delights has a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the USDA and a licensing agreement on the patented process to extract the juice from pears, dry it into flakes and reconstitute the pear into an all-natural snack bar with no additives or preservatives. “This project has been personally rewarding because of the impact of helping to sustain rural communities,” McHugh said.
Gorge Delight’s 15,000 square foot plant, which can produce about 400 bars a minute, may soon be running at capacity. In addition to purchasing all produce locally, Gorge Delights also returns six percent of net profits to the USDA for continued product development. According to the USDA, the process developed for the pear bars can also be applied to other fruits and vegetables including corn and carrots. “We are doing this to keep future generations of farmers in business, not so we can sell it to a package goods giant so they can buy the produce from overseas. That goes against everything we are working for,” Willis said.