Fred Duckwall: ‘We want to honor our growers and our employees’

We caught up with Fred Duckwall, president of his family company for the past 27 years.(He retires this year, and Ed Weathers takes on the role of president.)

HRN: What’s important to Duckwall about its centennial?

“We want to honor, especially, the growers who have stayed with us all these years and helped make us successful, and our employee base that is super good. They help make the company run efficiently and achieve our target profitability. We want to say thank you to the community for being a part of it all.”

(The company is hosting events open to growers, employees and invited guests.)

HRN: Talk about your grower loyalty and the quality of your work force; how did you as a company work to foster those two essential things?

“I think the most important thing we could have done is make sure our growers are profitable in their operations. They make money to expand and continue, the economic model for any business.

“Our employees are especially valuable to us because they have the skills to run the packing house and cold storage and sales desk, and the fact they continue to produce makes them a valuable asset to the firm. It takes time. Everyone had to break into a job.”

HRN: What has Duckwall done to sustain your growers and the quality of your employees?

“The bottom line is how much can we get for the fruit in the marketplace, and that continues to be a benchmark. We develop our own marketing strategy for the season and base that on the factors we see for the season: Size of the crop, quality of the crop, competitive factors we’re going to be involved with and once we develop a plan we try to turn that plan and those resources into a successful season.”

HRN: In terms of grower loyalty, how does it work?

“Sometimes growers will split their crop and go to two packers, but most growers are strictly Duckwall growers.”

HRN: What have been periods of growth and challenge for Duckwall?

“In 1919, my grandfather made the first trip to Europe, and lined up buyers there and spent time in domestic market in Washington looking for domestic fruit to pack.

“One year he had a contract to pack plums for a grower in Elgin, Ore., and somehow the deal fell through, but the labels said ‘Duckwall Plums.’ We’ve still got a few of those labels still around.

“Probably the toughest time for the firm was prior to World War II. Typically the fruit was purchased from the growers for cash. In 1937, there was the Depression, and it likewise created huge losses for my dad. The fruit wouldn’t return him (financially) what he paid the growers. It took him several years, but he ended up repaying every grower the money they settled on for the fruit. It was an obligation, no way was going to try to get out of that debt. In the agricultural sector there were still some serious problems” (in 1937).

HRN: What do you see moving forward?

“We’ve been technologically inefficient for a long time. There really haven’t been  many changes. The electronic sizers are replacing the mechanical sizers. That’s an improved efficiency.

“Now our biggest challenge is labor. The labor force is diminishing, and we’re going to have to figure out how to replace labor with technology. One of the major opportunities that’s happening right now is that the pear industry is in the midst of changing their sorting process to ‘defect sorting’: Sorting and grading are literally done by a machine rather than a person. Right now with mechanical sorting you have eight people to a table. With electronic defect sorting you can do the same job with two people to a table. It’s a pretty substantial labor differential.”

HRN: You’re not talking about eliminating employees; this is the way to meet the problem of not enough workers.

"That’s right."

HRN: How soon will you incorporate this?

“Diamond and Underwood have made the shift. We have not made the change yet, by choice. Within two years or less we will also be defect sorting. Within about two and a half years, we will have shifted.”

HRN: That’s extensive retooling. Also, do you currently have the land?

“It is a very significant change  — expensive retooling. The company a way of doing this on our existing land and we expects to spend $7-$10 million.”

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