Snokist focuses on cannery
President Jim Davis sees opportunities in processed fruit.
The closure of Snokist Growers's fresh-fruit packing business marks the end of an era for one of the oldest fruit packers in the Yakima, Washington, district. But company President Jim Davis said it opens up new opportunities for Snokist as a fruit processor.
Snokist was established in 1903. Whereas most fruit packers in the state handle only fresh fruit, Snokist has also been a major processor. In fact, over the last 20 years or so, processing has been the major part of its business, Davis said. Last season, the company packed about 20,000 tons of fresh fruit and processed about 50,000 to 60,000 tons.
The fresh division had been shrinking over the years, Davis said. Most of its members were small growers, many of whom had switched to other crops such as grapes, or sold their orchards for development, and this made it difficult for Snokist to compete with the larger packing houses in the state that had more captive tonnage and were expanding. Profits from fresh-fruit packing were no longer enough to cover the fixed costs of running its three Yakima Valley packing facilities, he said. The fresh side of the business had been losing money for about the past seven years or more.
"It just got to the point where it was taking away from the opportunities at the cannery," he said. "This allows us to focus all of our attention, capital, and resources into the cannery, which has more opportunities for growth and opportunity for the growers. I think it will make us stronger in going forward and get some pretty good returns down the road for the members."
As a cooperative, Snokist was limited on the fresh side to the fruit that its growers delivered, Davis said. However, on the processing side, there was always plenty of fruit available on the open market to supplement its members' production when needed.
The cannery produces traditional canned products, including pears, plums, cherries, and prunes; apple and pear purées sold in bulk as ingredients for baby foods and candies; and fruit products sold in single-serving cups. Davis said new products such as salsa, sorbets, and fruit in gel have strengthened the cannery's business in recent years. The company brings in diced peaches from California for the mixed-fruit products, but is considering buying peaches locally.
Davis said the processing business is less competitive than the fresh tree fruit. About 70 percent of the fruit it processes are Bartlett pears. There are only five pear canners in the Pacific Northwest and seven in the whole of the United States. In comparison, Washington State alone has about 50 fresh-fruit packers.
However, the processed-fruit business is still very competitive in terms of the marketplace, he said.
Snokist has about 175 members who deliver processing fruit. It had about 75 who produced strictly fresh fruit, many of whom were cherry growers.
Gilbert Orchards of Yakima is leasing Snokist's Grandview facility with an option to buy. It will pack fresh cherries or pears for Snokist members, so they can still deliver to the same plant that they were taking their fruit to before.
The apple-packing plant at Terrace Heights, Yakima, is for sale, and Davis said Snokist hopes that the buyer will handle the fresh apples for Snokist's members. The company will keep its Sawyer facility for storage.
The company employs about 150 people year-round and between 800 and 900 during peak production. Some will work for the businesses that take over its fresh facilities, but most of those people will have jobs at the cannery, which might need more employees as the business expands, Davis said.