The plan has always been to keep growing.
Whether Washington Fruit & Produce is acquiring new orchard land or adding to its packing and storage facilities, the Plath family continually keeps an eye on the future.
Now that the century-old Yakima company has been in its River Road headquarters for more than seven years, it’s time to keep growing even more.
As Washington Fruit continues to produce more apples year after year — and looks to increase its stake in the organic fruit market — the need for additional storage has also increased.
In response to that steady upward trend, the company — one of the largest vertically integrated fruit producers in North America — is currently building a series of brand-new controlled atmosphere (CA) storage facilities along U.S. Highway 12.
While company representatives declined to discuss the exact square-footage of the project, it’s fair to say that Washington Fruit will soon have enough capacity (more than 1 million square feet total) to store more apples than just about anyone else.
“As we continue to expand more into organics, we’re going to need more CA storage,” said Frank Davis, vice president of sales for Washington Fruit. “We already need more storage, even with the volume we’re producing now. And as we add different varieties to our product mix, those needs are only going to increase.”
Washington Fruit already operates a number of large CA storage buildings on its 111-acre River Road campus, and also maintains additional space in Moxee.
The industry-wide move toward creating more CA storage began in 2014, when production records started falling year after year.
By implementing new growing techniques — such as planting trees closer together to achieve more yield per acre — the company has experienced tremendous returns over the past four growing seasons.
With no signs that demand is slowing down, Washington Fruit wants to be sure it can stay ahead of the inevitable.
“More volume means more work, so we’re going to be investing even more in labor and technology so we can keep up,” Davis said. “That’s where vertical integration comes in. As we figure out ways to produce more fruit, we can improve other areas of the operation at the same time.”
Most larger companies employ a vertical integration strategy as a way of controlling all phases of the business, from growing to packing to sales to distribution.
There are other Northwest fruit companies that utilize vertical integration, but Davis says Washington Fruit is always looking at how it can gain an advantage.
“We are innovators in all aspects of our business, and we’re always looking for new ways to improve what we do,” he said. “Whether it’s growing more fruit on less acreage or investing in state-of-the-art packing lines, we want to figure out how to become more efficient.”
Eye On The Future
With 1,250 year-round employees — as many as 7,500 during harvest — Washington Fruit is one of the largest employers in the Yakima Valley.
At the same time, the company is always looking at ways to streamline its operation.
Advancements in robotics and fruit-scanning equipment may eventually limit the need for so much manpower, but when you have as many orchards as Washington Fruit does, the need for labor remains ever-present.
Providing a superior-quality product to its customers will always be the priority.
“We try to stay ahead of technology in our packing facilities so we can continue to deliver the best-quality fruit around the world,” Davis said. “We want to be on the leading edge, and that commitment has made our operational efficiency very high.”
Washington Fruit also has its eye on the future when it comes to growing, recognizing the increasing demand for organic fruit around the world.
The company has planted new organic apple orchards in the past year and will be converting some of its traditional orchard land to organic — a process that takes about three years.
“That’s where the industry is going, and we want to satisfy the growing need for organics in our product mix,” Davis said. “Our organic program will grow significantly in the 2018 crop year.”
Washington Fruit is also looking forward to crop year 2019, when it will be planting the newest apple variety, Cosmic Crisp, developed at Washington State University and only available to Washington growers.
“We offer a good balance of all the major varieties, but we think the Cosmic Crisp will make us even more competitive,” Davis said. “We’re very excited about the next few years.”
Focus On Community
Growing the business will always be a goal for Washington Fruit & Produce.
Just as important to ownership, however, is the role the company plays in building a better community.
Going back to his great-grandfather Fred B. Plath — who founded the company in 1916 — company President Rick Plath and his family know that making Yakima a better place over the past 102 years has been their greatest contribution.
“Community involvement has always been a priority for the Plath family, and a lot of what they have done flies under the radar,” Davis said. “They’ve always been very community-minded, whether they are supporting education, contributing to major building projects, or taking care of their employees. Many people aren’t aware of everything they have done for Yakima.”
Supporting education has been a hallmark of the Plath family, with one of their most notable contributions being to the Washington Apple Education Foundation, a statewide scholarship organization.
Perry Technical Institute also has benefited greatly from the family’s support over the years, as well as the Yakima Greenway Foundation and the Union Gospel Mission, among countless others.
The Plath family commitment to building a better community is felt every day by Washington Fruit’s staff. Davis said he’s never felt anything like it in all his years working in the industry.
“No one here is about titles; we’re all partners,” Davis said. “It’s an environment where everyone is happy because we know our employer cares deeply for everyone involved. It’s a great family atmosphere and everyone is working together to do the right thing every time. We recognize that our people are our biggest asset, and I think that’s what truly sets us apart.”