For 100 years, the Duckwall family has been packing premium pears from Oregon’s Hood River growers and, this summer, they are celebrating their centennial and looking to the future with new leadership and a new investment in technology.
Fred Duckwall, son of founder John C. Duckwall, has led the company since his brother, Dick Duckwall, retired in 1992. Now, Dick’s grandson, Ed Weathers, has been named president after 24 years with the company.
“It’s a good thing Ed is family, because he’s one of the best fruit salesmen out there,” said Fred, who’s not yet ready to retire completely but glad to be passing on the reins.
His father, originally a banker, started the company after moving to Oregon from Indiana in search of adventure and money to be made farming fruit. John shipped his first harvest back to Indianapolis and made such good returns his neighbors asked him to ship their fruit, too. In the 1930s, he built cold storage facilities to extend the season and began marketing fruit in Europe as well as across the U.S.
“The biggest boost for the company was the merger with Pooley Fruit Co. in 1970,” Fred said. That almost doubled the size of the company and created an opportunity for Fred to join his older brother, Dick, in the business.
Family continues to be the heart of the company. Two other family members, Fred’s children, Sara Duckwall and Nathan Duckwall, work for the company, too, and the vast majority of their employees — about 350 at the height of the season — have been working there for decades.
“Dad’s a leader for the employees. He’s made this an incredible place to work for me, as his daughter, and for everyone packing fruit,” Sara said. If people have to work Saturdays during harvest, they can expect coffee and doughnuts, for example, and Fred regularly goes down to the line to stretch with workers before each shift.
But even with a loyal workforce, labor supply is a concern. The company is looking to new technology to improve both quality and efficiency; Nathan just returned from a European tour of pear packing technology, looking for the right fit to replace the facility’s legacy equipment.
They’ve been waiting for the right time to invest, hoping to find pear-focused equipment that’s proven, not just retrofitted apple technology.
When asked about the next hundred years for the company, Ed laughs. He sees a lot of change in fruit packing, but not in the company’s mission or approach.
“I continue to see technology driving the change,” Ed said, “but unfortunately, because of regulatory issues, the small family farm is starting to go by the wayside,” changing the landscape on which the business was built, serving small growers.
“The thing is, we’re a throwback, no question about it, but we’re big enough,” Fred said. They pack about 2.5 million boxes of fresh pears each year.
That’s big enough to stay competitive in the rapidly consolidating industry, but still small enough to continue to operate as a family-run firm that puts equal emphasis on treating growers, customers and employees right.
“That’s the best compliment I’ve ever heard from a customer — ‘You’re big, but you still act like a small company,’” Ed said, adding that they plan to keep it that way. •
—by Kate Prengaman