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Baker & Murakami a ‘new’ force in IEOOC onion industry

After decades of doing business as friendly competitors in the Treasure Valley of Idaho-Eastern Oregon, two of the region’s biggest onion shippers have joined forces to become a unified operation with combined volume from approximately three dozen growers and a new line that can achieve unprecedented productivity with high volume capacity at all stages of the packing process.

The merger, official on July 1, resulted in a new operation called Baker & Murakami Produce LLLP, and the principals are Jerry and Steve Baker of Baker Packing and Grant Kitamura of Murakami Produce. Both operations are headquartered in Ontario, OR, and each on its own has been a longtime a major player in Idaho-Eastern Oregon onions.  

Although the announcement in spring 2017 created quite a stir in the onion industry, the merger had actually been in the works for more than a year. And shortly after news of the merger became public, work began on a new finished product-packing structure at the Baker Packing location. Workers also began installing the new European-designed and built line in an existing building at the site.

The two companies’ histories go back several decades, and the three men are synonymous with the Valley’s Spanish Sweet onion industry. Murakami Produce was launched in 1969 by the late Sig Murakami as the packing and shipping division of Murakami Farms. Kitamura joined the company in 1980, three years before the family-owned farm ceased operations.

In 2006 Murakami Produce entered into a joint ventures with Potandon Produce for onion sales, and in 2014 a six-farm group in the Treasure Valley came together as Murakami Growers LLC and became part owners of that company.

And Baker Packing began as an onion division for DeBruyn Produce in 1972, headed by Jerry Baker. The longtime produce man ran the business out of a 7,200-square-foot warehouse on the same land that is now home to the new operation. Steve Baker joined his father in the business in 1984, and the company became Baker Packing in 1997.

In addition to their collective experience, the principals are also like-minded in their business practices, ethics and dedication to the overall success of the Treasure Valley onion industry and bullish on the “Buy American” focus of USA Onions.

“I’m really happy and proud to partner with Baker Packing,” Kitamura said in June. “I’m very pleased with Jerry’s entrepreneurial spirit, and the three of us share a common work ethic. We didn’t inherit these businesses. We built them.”

Steve Baker added, “And we are likewise very proud to be associated with Murakami Produce. We’ve known each other for a long, long time and have always worked together for the well-being of this area.”

“Our ethics, our morals and our business practices are very similar,” Jerry Baker said.

They’re glad to join forces. What has been the response from others who are directly involved?

“Customer-wise the reception has been very positive,” Kitamura said. “And our growers are excited, too. It’s all positive.”

Though the season looks to be a bit later than normal after Snowmageddon in January and February was compounded by a long, cold and wet spring, Kitamura and Jerry Baker agreed with Steve Baker’s comment that “Mother Nature has a way of playing catch-up.” Plans were for the line to be operational for onions in August, the men said.

When asked to describe the equipment, each man spoke in superlatives, with Kitamura saying the electronic grader can take high-resolution photos of individual onions and spot any and all blemishes. It grades for internal quality — decay, seed stem or sprouts.

Steve Baker said the computer “absorbs information and can add to that information progressively.” He said, “It is the latest and the greatest and can electronically size onions with accuracy within one-tenth of a millimeter.”

The upshot of such technology is that the line will do in eight hours the volume that both sheds combined did in eight hours previously, with increased efficiency and quality.

Kitamura was quick to credit Cameron Skeen, chief operating officer for the new company, with “much of the legwork” in the equipment selection and implementation. And Steve and Jerry Baker lauded their production manager, Jerry Mackey, with his input and expertise as well.

Skeen said the new line is “truly a culmination of advanced engineering from people all over the world, and it is an incredible sight to see.” He called the equipment “a tremendous tool that both our current and future customers are going to absolutely appreciate.”

He said the system allows Baker & Murakami to “create customer specific recipes and to be able to deliver a high level of consistent product types.”

The increased efficiency also extends to high-speed automatic scales and baggers, fully automatic palletizers and wrappers and “the latest technology in regards to dust, dirt, and debris extraction allowing for a better work environment for our employees and an overall cleaner facility start to finish,” Skeen said.

Baker & Murakami’s “green” efforts have also been recognized by Idaho Power, which recently awarded the company with a cash rebate for its energy-saving LED lighting and a new high-capacity VFD air compressor to run the packingline. 

Skeen also weighed in on the impact Millennials and Gen Z’ers are having on not only the onion industry in terms of marketing efforts but also as colleagues in the workforce.

“I think both of these generations will bring a sort of refinement to our industry,” Skeen said of the work force angle. “That refinement will come in the way of technology and the ability to implement new ways of analyzing data or systems for more efficient operations and decision making.”

It’s a fearless new world out there with Millennials and Z’ers, and he added, “There will be no trepidation.”

Marketing to younger consumers “in my mind it boils down to two things,” he said. “First is transparency. Whether they are consumers or actual produce buyers, people have an interest in where there food is coming from. And that ties directly into the second thing, which is stewardship. These two generations especially want to know that we are being the best stewards we can be in regards to taking care of the resources we work with everyday to do what we do.”