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F-D-S’s growth fueled by berry industry

Whether it is the ubiquitous one-pound clamshell for strawberries, the many different blueberry options or even the old plastic one-pint basket favored by growers going the farmers’ market route, berry packaging is at the core of F-D-S Manufacturing Co.’s success.

The company was founded more than 65 years ago utilizing the initials of founders Fritz Fernstrom, Dan Dayton and Sam Stevenson as its moniker. It began by offering packaging to the fresh produce industry and has maintained that business ever since. Today with President Bob Stevenson, and his son, Vice President of Engineering Kevin Stevenson, providing a direct lineage to one of the original owners, strawberry packaging forms the base of the firm’s business. Bob Stevenson said there are many fresh produce items that use the company’s products, which include many different kinds of packaging, but he said the strawberry clamshell is clearly one of the main drivers of the business. He estimated that the strawberry industry uses upwards of two billion clamshells per year.

Strawberry-Black-BasketThe clamshell comes in several different sizes and shapes but the one-pounder is the most popular item… and has been for at least a decade. Today’s clamshell is vastly superior than the one first developed and introduced many years ago. “Each year all of the manufacturers tweak it a little bit for the good of the fruit,” Stevenson said. “We’re always looking for better air flow, better snaps, better protection.”

And he said the clamshell material has also evolved. Today, he said all of the half dozen or so U.S.-based clamshell manufacturers and sellers utilize recycled product as well as virgin resin to make the package — and make it as “green” as possible. It is recycled plastic soda and water bottles that are reused in making the clamshells. Stevenson said that over the years the percentage of recycled resin in the product has continued to increase. “Many manufacturers have gotten to the 50/50 levels. Our effort is to be 100 percent recycled. We achieve that about 80 percent of the time.”

He explained that not all recycled plastic is the same, and it is an art to mix recycled and virgin to create the desired outcome. He said the best recycled material is that which is trimmed off by bottle manufacturers without ever being used as a bottle.

Stevenson said the effort to use recycled material was designed to help reuse all the plastic being recycled these days, but he said there is also an economic play. Recycled plastic resin is cheaper than virgin resin, though the price has increased significantly in this past year. “We are keeping our price down but it’s difficult because the cost of the recycled resin has gone up dramatically.”

While recycled resin is still cheaper than virgin resin, Stevenson said increased demand has caused the price to spike. “In this industry, the (clamshell) manufacturers are using millions of pounds of recycled plastic every year.”

The one-pounder is the most popular but two-pounders and even four-pounders are ordered by strawberry growers on both coasts and in Mexico. Similar clamshells are available for other commodities including grapes and dates. Stevenson said the specs of the blueberry clamshell are quite a bit different as that fresh product is often machine packed and so it needs a different clamshell designed to withstand the rigors of being washed, packed and sealed on an automatic line.

Behind the scenes, each new clamshell requires extensive design work and the creating of a quite expensive mold for the manufacturing process.

F-D-S also continues to sell the plastic pint container that the strawberry industry was built on a couple of generations ago. The pint is often preferred in farmers’ markets, for organic product and by non-retail buyers. Stevenson said the newest wrinkle in that product is the desire for a black basket rather than the traditional green one. He said sales of the plastic basket are significant enough that F-D-S invested in a box machine to make the special strawberry flat that fits those containers. He said suppliers of those corrugated cartons with the divider down the middle have diminished over the years so F-D-S added the capability as a service to its growers.