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An Interesting Observation

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Gary A. White
Director
Business Retention & Expansion, TRIDEC

After spending a bit of time contemplating the recently completed third annual FABREO Food & Beverage Expo this past June, I welcomed the friendly visit of an interesting observation. Many of our exhibitors from throughout the Pacific Northwest were farmers who have diversified their business by processing their harvested produce into food and beverage products. Value Added Agriculture is the tired and worn, but still applicable, term for this process. The effectiveness of Value Added Agriculture as an economic development tool has been debated for as long as I can remember, which, depending on the time of day, could be five minutes ago.

I had the privilege of meeting the people that own and operate these companies. Our conversations provided comfort that the American entrepreneurial spirit is still alive and well, at least in the food and beverage industry. Some are brand new to the business. Others are more experienced, but still barely out of the shallow end of the pool, walking forward step-by-step into the deep and unknown. They are all passionate and optimistic about their companies, products and future.

They were scattered throughout the Expo, booth number this and booth number that, talking, laughing and selling. Each one anticipating uncovering that hidden, but necessary, resource or contact that will launch them to the exalted level of their dreams, before those dreams are but a distant memory. Their stories are the fabric of the Pacific Northwest food and beverage industry.

Kevin and Bryan Filbrun have been busting sod for more than 30 years. With Columbia Valley Family Farms, Inc., (Pasco, WA) best known for its Foster’s Pickled Products (asparagus and beans), they are now busting down retailer and wholesaler doors in the United States and Canada. I have the pleasure of seeing Sandy Lehrman, Sales and Marketing, at various trade shows along the West Coast. She is always friendly and optimistic about her company and its future in the Columbia Basin. She is equally optimistic about the future of the FABREO Expo. “Thank you, Sandy.” Quality is not only apparent in their products, but also in their people. Their business is based on three core values: integrity, honesty and family. It seems to be working.

Rowley & Hawkins Fruit Farms (Basin City, WA) are credited as the pioneers of the tart cherry industry in Washington State. The two family operation farms 800 acres primarily in cherries, but also apples, peaches, berries, nectarines, apricots and asparagus. In the tradition of Walter Knott, of Knott’s Berry Farm fame, they have branched out into selling their fruit at road-side-stands, developed the FreshPicksWA┬ábrand featuring fresh, frozen and dried cherries along with cherry juice, apple cider and a wide variety of jams, opened two commercial stores and began marketing their products to the wholesale trade. I am expecting a ghost town, a train robbery and a fried chicken restaurant to open any day now.

Mike Seely is a third generation mint farmer. His Seely Family Farm (Clatskanie, OR) grows single-cut premium quality, organic Black Mitcham Peppermint and Native Spearmint. Mike has made the transition from successful farmer to successful food processor. In addition to mint oil, one of his most popular creations is the handcrafted Seely Mint Peppermint Patty. I first met Mike a couple of years ago at Natural Products Expo East. He has been a good friend and valuable resource ever since. Mention Mike to food people in the Portland, OR area and you will hear a chorus of, “Mike, yea, he’s a great guy.” I agree, a great guy and a great businessman, selling his mint products to such distinguished retailers as Whole Foods, Town & Country Markets, Quality Food Centers, Metropolitan Markets, Markets of Choice and countless independents.

On approximately 1,000 acres outside of Mesa, WA, the Empey Brothers Farms grow cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches, alfalfa, wheat, corn, beans and what they are becoming most recognized for…..specialty apple varieties such as the Arkansas Black and the Blacktwig, used to manufacture their Sheffield Cider. The cider processing operation was born in 2004, filling a need in the market for non-alcoholic, organic, fruit cider that paired well with food. Brady Cutler, in charge of production, storage and shipping, and my contact with the company, exhibited in the very first FABREO Expo in 2015. I am delighted to have Brady and Sheffield Cider’s continued support. Sheffield Cider has become a local favorite with product placement in The Country Mercantile, Yoke’s Fresh Markets and Ranch & Home. By participating in the FABREO Expo they are positioning their company and brand regionally, nationally and internationally.

These are merely some of the Value Added Agriculture companies that participated in the FABREO Expo 2017. Others included Adams Place Country Gourmet, d’s Wicked Cider, J. Bookwalter Winery, Milne Fruit Products, Rudy’s Pepperblends, Sorbatto, LLC, TPG Enterprises (Tart is Smart) and Whiskey Gap Distillery. Why do farmers want to expand into processing? Most don’t. But, for those that do, the logical answer is to make more money and to control their destiny.

Value Added Agriculture is as old as agriculture. It seems rather obvious and makes sense. If you grow the raw material for a food or beverage product, why not vertically integrate. You have an advantage many other food and beverage processors don’t have…..lower costs and availability for the primary ingredient. But, on the other hand, this is a mysterious new world. It’s an entirely different business than farming; a world of advertising, packaging, product development, trade shows, brokers, distributors, retailers, exporters, slotting fees, more and different rolls of government red tape, buy-backs, new machinery and buildings, different personalities and thinking.

Fortunately, for the consumer and the food and beverage industry, there are still entrepreneurs that just can’t help themselves. That brass ring is way too shiny and merely a grasp away. Maybe they have been in the sun too long.

Or, maybe they just know they can do it. They made it in farming. Why not processing? They know they can learn what is needed and meet who is necessary. They discovered they can do both at the FABREO Expo. They are defining the Expo as the event that provides the environment, resources and exposure for the nonconformists, disruptive innovators, brilliant idea people. In other words the start-ups that are changing the culture and creating the future. An interesting observation highlights an outstanding opportunity for the FABREO Expo and the Pacific Northwest food and beverage industry.

 

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