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SRP’s Kay Riley says American onions are tops

When it comes to promoting Spanish Sweet onions from the Treasure Valley — and especially, of course, the Spanish Sweets from Snake River Produce in Nyssa, OR — SRP General Manager Kay Riley is a staunch supporter.

“I certainly support ‘Buy American,’” he said of the USA promotional theme. Riley, who’s been in the Idaho-Eastern Oregon onion business for three decades, said in July that imports from Canada and Mexico “have proven devastating to our market the past year.”

Riley said, “I think we need to continue to emphasize the message that we produce high quality onions using the best practices. We test for pesticide residues, and the buying public can rest assured that they will get a high quality, safe product from our area.”

He went on to say, “It is hard to denigrate the competition, but we have sell these ideas and principles, and to accomplish this, we must be consistent in our supply and message.”

The Nyssa company started out in the mid-20th century as part of Salt Lake City-based Muir-Roberts, and it became Snake River Produce in 1999 when it was purchased by four Treasure Valley growers — Reid Saito, Ken Teramura, Les Ito and Rosh Nishihara — and Riley, who had been vice president of operations at the Nyssa facility for Muir-Roberts.

Four years later Treasure Valley grower and Idaho Legislator Pat Takasugi came on as a partner, and when he passed away in 2011, his interest in the company was taken over by his wife, Suzanne.

In 2013 brothers Brian and Randy Kameshige joined the operation, and upon Saito’s retirement last year, the newest — and youngest — member of the organization, 25-year-old Kevin Corn, came on board as a grower-owner.

The team works toward providing its customer base with quality and service, with Tiffany Cruickshank managing transportation and also assisting in sales and marketing.

This season SRP is tackling two major issues: Labor, which Riley termed “an age-old concern,” and construction of a new packing facility and replacement of structures lost to the enormous storms of January and February.

Regarding labor, Riley said, “We certainly could use a guest worker program to help supply our labor needs.” He noted that SRP is “taking steps to increase production while lowering labor costs.” To that end, the company has purchased automatic baggers and palletizers “that should help with these needs.”

Riley added, “We are planning on some economies with increasing the speed of production.” 

Cruickshank, who from June 2016 to June 2017 was president of the Idaho Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, spoke of the damages from the storm to SRP as well as to the Treasure Valley as a whole.”

“Losses at Snake River Produce included three buildings we owned and three we leased,” she said. “Nearly everything inside the buildings was completely destroyed, and production was severely limited for several weeks because of the restriction on transportation and product availability. Trucks and railcars were difficult to come by with constant road closures, and there was a lack of equipment and manpower to clear the railroad tracks. Costs increased due to the rework in our packed product storage process after our main packed product storage collapsed.”

On top of that, planting was delayed “because of the heavy, lingering snow and cold temperatures,” and she said, “Planting conditions were not ideal as we had heavy rains during that timeframe.” 

But from the ashes — or, more appropriately, the snowdrifts — comes new facilities that will “boost production while modernizing our organization.”

She said, “To replace several fallen buildings, a new onion storage will hold 9,500 wooden onion bins of raw product. On the same property, a 30,000-square-foot packingshed has gone up to house an updated packing line featuring automatic palletizers and a larger production base.”

Riley said cold storage is possible, and he said the new packing shed should see nearly double the per-hour production of the older facility.

And to keep customers and consumers current on the progress, Snake River Produce maintains an active social media presence on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn.

“We utilize social media to reach our buyers and customers as well as end-consumers,” Cruickshank said. “It is a useful tool to keep our contacts engaged and informed. You never know what you might find on our social media. It ranges from building updates and grower profiles to recipes and field, harvest, and packing photos.”

There have been new hires in the past several months as well, with Millennial Bryce Marvin joining the operation in a food safety managerial capacity.   

“Bryce grew up in Vale, OR, as the middle child of seven, and he is the oldest boy,” Cruickshank said. “Since graduating from high school in 2011, Bryce has served a two-year LDS mission in Chile, married his high school sweetheart, Alena, graduated with his associates degree from Treasure Valley Community College, completed his bachelor of arts degree at BYU-Hawaii, and has been working at SRP since December 2016.”

Additionally Bryce and Alena became parents of daughter, Eloise.

Another Millennial on the SRP team this summer was Paige Takasugi, daughter of Pat and Suzanne and student at the University of Utah where she is studying “biology with cell and molecular emphasis” for pre-med, came on as a worker at the shed.

Onion veteran Mike Stender brought more than 30 years’ experience in produce and agriculture with him when he came on during the summer as well. Cruickshank said, “Mike will be the point of contact for our grower base and will oversee harvest, storage and many other operations.”