FirstFruits Marketing of Washington is the new kid on the marketing block. From left are Jim Hazen, business manager for Broetje Orchards, FirstFruits organic sales specialist Matt Miles, and Melissa Ollis, office manager

FirstFruits Marketing of Washington is the new kid on the marketing block. From left are Jim Hazen, business manager for Broetje Orchards, FirstFruits organic sales specialist Matt Miles, and Melissa Ollis, office manager

In the crowded market of tree fruit, differentiating yourself from others is key. A new marketing firm opening its doors this season hopes to stand out by promoting values of social and environmental responsibility and philanthropy, all while keeping growers profitable.

FirstFruits Marketing of Washington, with an office in Yakima, Washington, began business in mid-August after Broetje Orchards ended its long-term apple marketing relationship with the Raleigh, North Carolina-based L & M Corporation. Affiliated with Broetje Orchards, the new company allows customers to have direct access to the producer, closely linking customers with the grower.

Ralph Broetje, owner of Broetje Orchards, is one of Washington State’s last family-owned, grower-shippers that packs only its own fruit. The family operation, headquartered in Prescott with more than 5,000 acres of apples and cherries, is one of the largest privately owned orchards in the world and packs an average of five million boxes of apples annually under its FirstFruits of Washington label. Broetje is committed to a servant-leadership model and donates about 75 percent of the family’s profits to local, domestic, and international mission projects.

Within a few weeks of FirstFruits Marketing going live, the company added Columbia Valley Fruit LLC as a supplier-partner. By October 1, industry-veteran Keith Mathews was brought on board as president and CEO.

Broetje business manager Jim Hazen said that they talked internally for several months about making a marketing change, discussing whether to go independent or partner with an existing firm. "But given our philosophy and mission (helping people and communities around the world), and the fact that those things are very important to us, we saw opportunity in aligning ourselves with suppliers that share those same qualities," he said. "It made sense to go independent and find like-minded suppliers."

FirstFruits Marketing has a staff just under 15, but Hazen said already there is need to add personnel, which he sees as a "good" problem to have.

"That’s been the most reassuring thing—that the FirstFruits label is well recognized in the marketplace and there is actually a pull-through in the market," he said, adding that there is a dual focus with the FirstFruits label. "There’s recognition for quality and consistency of the pack, but for another group of retailers, there’s recognition for the Broetje mission. A certain group of retailers want to be part of supporting that effort."

While he believes that quality always comes first, he also thinks that in a crowded market, it’s important to have something that sets them apart.

Shared philosophies

While Hazen is quick to point out that FirstFruits Marketing is looking for additional supplier-partners, particularly those with pears and cherries, recruiting supplier-partners is more about finding those with shared philosophies than it is a matter of convenience or putting the right manifest mix together.

Broetje Orchards is certified both under Safe Quality Food 1000, which covers food-safety practices on the farm, and SQF 2000, which covers warehouse practices. They are also certified under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices.

"SQF is known around the world for its food-safety program," Hazen said. However, the entity is now entering the environmental and social responsibility arena and will soon have a certification program for those aspects. He said that Broetje hopes to complete an SQF audit by the end of the year focused on sustainable agriculture and social responsibility.

Supplier-partners of FirstFruits must commit to environmental and social responsibility and seek certification by a third-party audit within two years of joining the marketing company, Hazen explained.

"You can claim to be a lot of things, but unless you measure it by having a third-party audit, it doesn’t really mean much," he said. "And, it’s only fair to all of the supplier-partners that one is not riding on the shoulders of the others. This is what we value and we want suppliers that share those same values."

Supplier-partners must also commit to donating the first 10 percent of the grower-supplier’s share of the marketing company’s profits to community service. Donations made to nonprofit recipients are at the discretion of the individual grower-shipper.

Advisory board

Another unique feature of the new company is that it will be guided by an advisory board comprised of growers that represent the supplier-partners. FirstFruits Marketing CEO Mathews will report to the advisory board.

The board will set the strategy and direction of the company, review where marketing dollars are being spent, participate in development of markets, and set the marketing fee structure.

The board will ensure that any profit from the marketing company goes back to the grower, with the caveat that the first 10 percent of that profit is given to charity, Hazen explained.

Orlin Knutson of Columbia Valley Fruit stressed that the overarching concern of the new marketing company is to keep growers profitable and increase returns to the land. Returning value to the land is the driving force, he said, and there must be a profit from the marketing company before money can be donated to charity.

Focus on the grower is also first and foremost at the sales desk. Hazen notes that there is a commitment and expectation of the marketing team that sales transactions will return value back to the grower. "If I had to pick the top five characteristics of this marketing firm, return to the grower would be number one. It’s about selling fruit at prices that keep the grower profitable. Ralph Broetje is a grower-packer-shipper, but he’s a grower first."

Full transparency will be a cornerstone of FirstFruits Marketing, according to Hazen. "We want full transparency in everything—from customers, f.o.b. prices, and inventory to sales transactions to shipment. It’s important to us to be able to share everything and that the supplier-partners understand the transparency."

Sales projections for the first year are between seven and ten million cartons of tree fruit under the FirstFruits label. While some naysayers believe a marketing company must represent more volume to be successful, Hazen said there are advantages to being smaller, such as being quicker to react and recognize emerging trends.

"We have a lot of good competition, but we think we can compete with any of them," he said. "And our intent is to grow over time."