Each day at 4 p.m., Fred Duckwall takes a break from his work and heads down from his second-floor office to the packing line to join the night crew in warm-up exercises.
Pear packers at Duckwall Fruit Company near Hood River, Oregon, begin each shift by doing hand and arm exercises and stretches for five minutes to loosen up. By the time the shift ends 7 1/2 hours later, the average worker will have individually paper-wrapped more than 20,000 pears at lightening speed and filled 230 boxes. Some might wrap as many as 30,000 pears, averaging more than one per second.
The motivation? Piece rate.
Fred, who is company president, says it’s work that requires exceptional manual dexterity. When new recruits are trained, it’s easy to tell who has the skill and who hasn’t.
Has Fred tried it?
“No, I’d starve to death,” he joked.
Duckwall Fruit, which packs pears but doesn’t grow any, employs 180 people at the peak of the season and about 30 year round.
“We’ve got an incredible employee base—people who’ve worked for us for 25 to 30 years at the packing house, and we respect our employees and appreciate our employees,” said Fred, who enjoys the people aspect of the business.
“I know a pretty good percentage of the employees who work on the line by name. When you see people every day, you get to remember their names and what’s going on with them. That’s what makes the business so fun to be involved in because you know who’s down there doing the job. It’s not impersonal.”
Creating a happy place to work is part of the company’s mission statement, along with being the best pear packer in the northwest and maintaining its integrity.
“Integrity is huge,” Fred said. “If you tell the buyer what you’re going to do, you’d better stand behind it and make sure the product meets their expectations.”
It was Fred’s father, John, who founded the company in 1919. He came from Indianapolis to Hood River where he planted apple trees, interplanted with strawberries as a cash crop while the trees were growing.
No conflict of interest
He packed fruit in the orchard and shipped it back to Indianapolis. When neighboring orchardists heard how much he’d received for the fruit, they asked him to pack and sell theirs, too, the following year.
As the packing business grew, John decided to sell the orchard and pack only fruit from other growers, which he felt avoided a conflict of interest. Today, the company still owns no orchard and is one of few fruit packers in the Northwest that are not vertically integrated. It is also unusual in packing only pears and no other fruits.
Fred’s brother Dick (who was 20 years his senior) took over the helm of the business when John retired. After graduating in 1965 with a business degree from Oregon State University and then serving in Germany as a U.S. Army officer, Fred inquired about a job at the family business.
Judging by the meager salary offered him, Fred decided he was not really needed and went to Corvallis to work for a company that made fruit pellets as food ingredients.
In 1971, Dick called Fred and said they really needed him now. Duckwall had merged with Pooley Fruit Company, almost doubling the size of the company. Fred started out as a trainee, ordering supplies and overseeing quality control.
Economies of scale enabled Duckwall-Pooley to modernize its plant. “It just moved us to a more competitive level,” Fred said.
In 1978, after neighboring packer Diamond Fruit Growers installed a dry presize line for pears, Duckwall installed one too, giving it the flexibility to pack certain sizes as needed. They are the only two Northwest packers with pear presize lines.
Duckwall was one of the first pear packers to make a total transition to plastic bins. The next change Fred expects to see is electronic defect sorting, though engineers are still perfecting a way to rotate pears so they can be photographed from all angles. They don’t roll as well as apples.
After Dick retired in 1993, Fred became president of the company. He decided to pack more fresh Bartlett pears instead of sending them for processing.
“The canner side of the industry got increasingly noncompetitive, so we moved into a fresh packing program,” Fred explained. “And it’s grown logarithmically. We’re packing half a million boxes of Bartletts now.”
Packing begins in mid-August with Bartlett and Starkrimson pears. The last of the winter pears are shipped by late May or early June. Last season Duckwall packed a record 2.4 million boxes of pears. This year’s crop was expected to be down by about 5 percent, but still the second largest volume ever. The company, which represents 75 growers, is among the largest pear packers in the Northwest.
So what’s behind the company’s success?
“First and foremost, we never forget who we’re working for,” Fred said. “The grower always comes first. The only reason we’re in business is to make a profit for the grower.” If the company can generate good returns for the growers, the growers have the money to invest back into their orchards to grow top quality fruit that gets the top price, he explained. “It’s a cycle that feeds on itself.”
Being successful requires constant investment in the packing house.
“Our goal is to be on the cutting edge of change so we can do an increasingly better job when the opportunities are made available through technology and equipment changes, so we can continue to do a good job for the grower, Fred said, acknowledging that it’s expensive. “But you can’t afford not to do it. If you don’t stay in good repair, you’ll never catch up.”
Fred, 72, begins each workday with aerobics and stretching at the local sports club at 6 a.m. He heads to the office after taking four of his 11 grandchildren to elementary school. During the day, he fits in civic duties, such as Hood River Port Commission or Rotary Club meetings, along with running the business.
The next two generations of the family are on board. Fred’s son Nathan, a former building contractor, is assistant production manager, and his daughter Sara is senior accountant. Dick’s grandson Ed Weathers, who has a degree in marketing and economics from OSU, is vice president and sales manager.
Weathers said being a packing company, and not a grower as well, helps Duckwall to do the best possible job for its growers.
“If anything, we probably do a better job just because we know the growers are the life-blood of our operation,” he said. “Our sole focus is to do a good job for our growers, and that translates into greater loyalty and the full warehouse and expanding operations that we’ve gotten over the years.”
For the time being, though, no further expansions are planned, he said.
“I think we’re at the size we’re going to be, though we’ve left a little bit of room for current grower expansion. The focus of the team here has been to be the best in the industry, not the biggest.” •