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Better Together: A Fruitful Partnership

As Chelan Fresh brings treefruit purveyors Borton Fruit and Columbia Valley Fruit into the fold, Director of Marketing Mac Riggan discusses what new capabilities, advantages, and benefits these two high-profile mergers have brought to the table for retail and beyond.


As one of America’s forefathers of business, Henry Ford, said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” If you measure success in the same way Ford did, it would be easy to say that Chelan Fresh is well on its way.

Having orchestrated two high-profile mergers in the second quarter of 2017, one with Union Gap-based Columbia Valley Fruit and the other with Yakima’s Borton Fruit, the united front the company has created is working together to become the retail community’s one-stop shop for year-round, high-quality produce. With close to 300 collective years in growing and marketing fruit, the combined Washington companies will ship apples, cherries, and pears, under the Trout and Cascade Crest labels. While the adjoining of these giants seems like a monumental feat, Chelan Fresh’s Director of Marketing, Mac Riggan, tells me the move was a natural progression for a company that is always looking to answer the call of the buy-side.

“The many retailers we talked to at the beginning of this, thought it was great news. Just as the packaged salad industry has consolidated itself, retailers are now looking to do that same thing in other categories,” Mac shares. “By becoming a larger supplier, you’re giving your retailers the ability to work with fewer entities and lower their costs. Anytime you can reduce the number of invoices and paperwork they have to process, it helps your customer be more cost efficient and allows them to spend more time actually selling your fruit and less time buying it.”

“We’re not trying to get bigger just for the sake of it; we’re getting bigger to get better.”

- Mac Riggan

And retailers will have more time to sell from Chelan Fresh’s newly-expanded seasons. For cherries, Mac expects to have an additional ten days to two weeks of supply in the early period of June, adding further to the company’s already early varieties. For apples, having fruit to the south in Yakima will give Chelan Fresh the earlier start needed for both conventional and organic.

“In the past, supply from our orchards in Chelan have put us between ten days to two weeks behind Yakima—that won’t happen anymore,” Mac assures me. “We’ll be just as early as anybody coming out of the gate. We’re also really excited to welcome Borton’s new apple, Koru®, out of New Zealand, alongside our SugarBee™ and Rockit™ club apples.”

As retailers consolidate and begin to grow organically, Mac says there is a clear signal to suppliers that they are going to have to pivot as well—more fruit, more service, and more varieties in more packages. Suppliers are going to have to grow themselves to respond to that expanded demand from the retail side.

“We’re not trying to get bigger just for the sake of it; we’re getting bigger to get better,” Mac explains.

The Chelan Fresh team

And better together they shall be. Adding Columbia Valley Fruit into the fold will not only help fill supply gaps and bring fruit under both labels earlier than ever before, Mac says the move doubles Chelan Fresh’s ability to ship organic fruit. And the larger size fruit from Yakima-based Borton Fruit, complements the smaller sized profile from the northern-based Chelan Fresh orchards and broadens the overall bell curve of fruit size.

“The added volume from both companies helps us fill the needed gaps to build yearlong programs. The addition of Borton Fruit alone brings an immediate 47 percent volume expansion to our sales and marketing portfolio, including early-season cherries, innovative plantings, and ‘Next Generation’ apple varieties,” Mac tells me as we talk about the new capabilities the mergers bring to the table. “We’ll become better suppliers to both domestic and export markets, and be able to provide flexibility and customization for shipments to our customers. The goal here is to make working with Chelan Fresh as efficient as possible for the customer.”

And it’s easy to see how Chelan Fresh will be able to achieve that goal. Now, under the merger, all three companies will be primarily united under the Trout label for conventional, the Cascade Crest label for organics, and entirely marketed by Chelan Fresh. This way, those three calls a retailer would have to make in the past is now condensed to the single press of a button—assuming you keep your favorite treefruit marketers on speed dial.

Clockwise from left: The Borton Fruit team; The Gebbers family; The Columbia Valley Fruit team

But beyond the fruit, the marketer is also adding to its family. In total, these mergers bring together three industry-leading companies and five generations of farmers—some of which even grew up playing on the same basketball teams. The Chelan Fresh shippers—Gebbers Farms, Crane & Crane, Chelan Fruit Cooperative, and now, Borton—started back in the early 1900s, and all have a long tradition of family farming going from one generation to the next. Columbia Valley Fruit got started a little later, but has quickly garnered 30 years of experience as one of the first organic apple farms in Washington State.

“The pioneers of these companies were all generous and kind-hearted people, who understood the value of taking care of their land, their employees, and their customers. It requires a servant mindset and a sense of humility to be a good steward of the land and to take care of the customers that you’re servicing,” Mac says as we discuss how the interwoven companies share a cohesive company culture. “Even though Columbia Valley does not have as long of a history and tradition as some of the rest, it is extremely progressive, which fits right in with our culture. It has been leading the charge with organic growing practices, state-of-the-art packing facilities, and food safety. So, all of these companies were doing the same types of things as each other before the merger—just doing them separately.”

And in that same vein of its progressive company culture, Chelan Fresh’s suppliers have invested more than $235 million in new, high-tech assets, including a recently completed packing facility in Chelan. Completed in October of 2016, the state-of-the-art additions include packing facilities and technologies, new storage facilities, and production efficiencies, which—combined with more than 13,000 acres planted in high-density orchards with modern trellis systems—will help to drive innovation on a large scale in the coming years.

The rate of change for Chelan Fresh over the past few months has been remarkable. One would think this might cause a bit of tension between shuffling responsibilities, branding, and personnel—but the combined staff has risen to the occasion.

“When our original Chelan facility was lost in the fire, it was the perfect opportunity to add new, state-of-the-art equipment, like our presize line,” Mac explains. “This is what allows us to fine-tune our customers’ fruit, so when you go to pack it, you’re only packing for the order. That benefit is that you aren’t packing everything just to get an order out, you’re packing specifically for those orders by grade and pack type. It also helps you keep your packs the freshest they can possibly be. Each new addition to the facility incorporates some of the latest robotics—everything from segregating the product, to stacking pallets, which reduces some of the need for manual labor.”

The rate of change for Chelan Fresh over the past few months has been remarkable. One would think this might cause a bit of tension between shuffling responsibilities, branding, and personnel—but the combined staff has risen to the occasion, Mac says, adding how rewarding it is to work with others who share Chelan Fresh’s same passion for family farms and serving customers.

“The one thing that I’ve been so excited to see is the meshing of the staff. As we have brought on new sales staff and administrative people from these companies, it’s almost as if they’ve been working at Chelan Fresh the whole time,” Mac smiles. “The thing I find interesting, is how much all of them care about the companies they are working for—that’s not something you can measure in terms of a paycheck or a resume. We’re providing a phenomenal product at a great price, providing value, and helping the country eat better—there’s a lot to be proud of.”

There are many ways a business can measure its level of success, but these words sound a whole lot like success to me.