Cherry grower positions for competitive market
Mike Omeg hopes certifying with Nature’s Choice will place him ahead of the competition.
Oregon cherry grower Mike Omeg expects to spend as much as $20,000 a year to be certified under Nature’s Choice, in order to supply the U.K. retailer Tesco.
Last season, rain in The Dalles, Oregon, devastated his cherry crop, so he was unable to export much fruit, but Omeg’s hoping the certification will give him an advantage as the cherry market becomes more competitive in the future.
“You put all that money in, and if your fruit isn’t export quality, you’re stuck,” he said. “But in a typical year, I’m hoping that in our late-variety cherries, we’ll have a good percentage of those go to Tesco.
“We decided to go with Nature’s Choice because we feel it’s important to be on the leading edge of this so we can compete against this inevitable glut of cherries that I foresee coming when all these acres and acres in Washington come into production. We want something that raises us above the rest.”
By far the greatest challenge of becoming certified was the record keeping, Omeg said. “The amount of records you have to keep for Nature’s Choice is phenomenal,” he said.
Since he joined the program last year, Omeg and his production manager have taken on the extra load, but he thinks he’ll have to hire someone to do it. He figures that for his 350-acre orchard it will take the equivalent of a half-time person between March and harvest to keep the records and make sure that all the spray and fertilizer recommendations are written out in the manner that Tesco requires—and it will take skilled, management-level people to do that.
For his first audit, he had two four-inch binders “stuffed to the brim” with records. He figures that all growers are going to have to keep better records in the future, whether to satisfy the people buying their products, or for regulatory reasons.
“No longer can you just do things and write it on the cardboard box of the spray container,” he said. “You’re going to have to put it into a computer and be able to produce that record whenever you’re asked.”
Omeg said he didn’t need to change many practices to qualify. He had already moved to a soft pest control program and had a good employee training program. The one major change he had to make was retrofit his chemical storage building.
“We don’t know, frankly, if it’s worthwhile,” he said. “But to have access to markets is important in a year when there’s a lot of fruit available. Where I see the value is having a channel to have our fruit sold before someone else’s fruit when there’s an oversupply of cherries.”
The Omegs have their Rainier cherries packed at Orchard View Farms in The Dalles, Oregon, and red cherries at Zirkle Fruit Company, Selah, Washington. Both companies are certified with Nature’s Choice.
Omeg, who farms with his parents, Mel and Linda Omeg, has since become certified under SQF 2000 and EurepGAP. Having gone through Nature’s Choice first, he had very little else to do to qualify for the other two programs.
Mel Omeg said the programs can be difficult and time consuming, but if the grower can get more money for the fruit, it’s a good return on the investment.
“You can look at these programs and say, ‘to hell with it, it’s frustrating, it’s difficult, and I’m not going to do that.’ or you can say, ‘This is the way we’re going in the future.’ Instead of fighting it, we need to find out how to make it work. It’s a marketing tool. We can do it. I think, in time, the sheds are going to expect that.
Rachel Joerling at McClaskey Orchards, The Dalles, is also certified under Nature’s Choice. Joerling said it didn’t involve many changes in farming practices, but greatly increased documentation and paperwork, including written instructions to workers for spraying and fertilizer applications, and additional spray records. The operation also had to compile policy statements and risk analyses.
Joerling said they haven’t hired more staff, though the existing managers are much busier than they were before.
Like Omeg, she thinks the benefit of being certified will be preferential market access when there’s an abundance of cherries.
“In case we end up with too many cherries on the market during that timing, it opens up another market to us that may not be open to other people, and it gives us an advantage.”