Changes in Northwest marketplace cause industry to adapt

07/07/2011 09:43:00 AM
Dan Gailbraith

MUKILTEO, Wash. — The population of the Pacific Northwest is growing faster than the national average, opening the door for more opportunity for fresh produce marketers.

U.S. Census Bureau data reveal that the population of Washington state stood at 6.7 million in 2010, up just over 14% from 2000. Oregon’s 2010 population of 3.8 million people was up 12% compared with 2000. Both states exceeded U.S. population growth of 9.7% from 2000-10, the Census Bureau said.

Other Northwest U.S. states also showed gains. Idaho’s population of 1.56 million in 2010 was up 21% from 2010, while Alaska’s population of 710,000 was up 13%.

The region’s population growth may help produce operators counterbalance a tepid economy.

“The food industry has been good over the past three years,” said Ron Escene, manager of Botsford & Goodfellow in its Federal Way, Wash., office.

In fact, the industry has done better than expected, considering the arc of the U.S. economy.

“I think the industry is in good shape,” he said. “If we can handle the transportation thing, I think we will be fine.”

Demand for local and organic produce is strong, said Diane Dempster, organic commodity manager with Charlie’s Produce, Seattle.

Still, Escene said restaurant customers are under stress, and are on a shorter leash than five years ago.

One major wholesaler — Colonial Fruit and Produce — closed in the past year and Escene said a couple of small operations could be vulnerable.

Two substantial marketers for the Seattle and Portland markets are Charlie’s Produce and United Salad Co., Portland, Ore.

One market observer said those big wholesalers are growing, both in their distribution network and vertical integration.

For his business, Eric Schindler, with Peterson Fruit Co. Inc., Mukilteo, said changing with the market is important.

“We’re always trying to reinvent ourselves,” he said. “If you don’t do that you don’t stay up with the times and you ending up going out of business.”

Weather markets have created big moves in prices, a reality that Escene says has been exacerbated recent years.

“Weather is more volatile now than it was 15 years ago,” he said.

“We are getting later snows, drier summers, wetter summers,” he said. “It’s tougher to grow now.”

The weather throughout North American has made markets more volatile, operators said.

It is not uncommon for a market to move $25 per carton when there is a shortage, Escene said.


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