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Fort Boise Produce keeping pace by running Parma and Nyssa sheds

Running onions at both the Nyssa, OR, and Parma, ID, sheds keeps Fort Boise Produce moving product at a brisk pace, according to Sales Manager Ashley Robertson and Sales Agent Ryan Stewart.

The Parma packingshed, built in 2004, hit the ground running with a multi-lane computerized sizer and color sorter to handle mostly mediums and jumbos, separating colors on the line. A wide range of consumer packs is available for retail, and a large portion of the company’s volume continues to go to foodservice and process.

Before relocating to the Idaho side of the Snake River, Fort Boise Produce was located in Nyssa, and the shed was brought back into use during the 2016-17 shipping season.

But the history of Fort Boise goes back much further than either of the two sites — back, in fact, to the early 1900s, when sheep farmer James Farmer finally tired of moving his flock from summer pastures in Utah to the winter home in Idaho. James settled in Nyssa, where he farmed and raised livestock, sustaining his family.

When World War II came to an end, James and son Warren farmed together, raising row crops that were seeing excellent post-war demand. Warren, who graduated from college in 1945, began farming on his own shortly after, raising sugar beets, potatoes, lettuce and onions. Soon he had his own family, and his own sons, Warren and Jim, began farming as well.

The two brothers, along with Tom Moore, founded Fort Boise Produce Co. in the early 1980s, shipping onions from the Treasure Valley with what was cutting-edge technology at the time.

Some 30 years later the Farmers were sole owners of Fort Boise, and Joe Farmer, the fourth generation and Jim’s son, became part of the operation. Totally at ease with ongoing changes in technology, Joe is operations manager. In the corporate structure, Jim is president/director, Warren is vice president/director, and Dave Larsen manages the packing facility.

New to the company is Jay Sutton, who manages food safety.

In June, while attending the Idaho-Oregon Fruit & Vegetable Association annual convention in McCall, ID, Robertson and Stewart tackled a number of topics, including promotion of IEO onions. Stewart said the Treasure Valley onion industry works together to tout the unique combination of climate and soil that produces its trademark Spanish Sweet.

“We sell 1 billion pounds of onions every year,” Stewart said, noting USA Onions and the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee’s consistent message about big, sweet, long-storing onions grown in the region.

Fort Boise also works to build and maintain relationships with clients through one-on-one contact. Some of the communication is electronic, but much of it is in person, with the sales team making sales trips to meet with longstanding customers and to follow up on referrals to establish new clients.

In communicating day-to-day, the team relies on email, texting and IM — a reflection of the changing of generations.

And about generations: Stewart has long maintained he’s in that gray area between a Millennial and a Gen X’er. Turns out — not really.

Both Robertson and Stewart used adjectives such as “entitled” to describe Millennials, but Robertson did allow that the generation born between 1980 and the mid- to late 1990s do embrace a “healthier lifestyle.”

In McCall Stewart said, “I didn’t know I was a Millennial. I was always making fun of those guys, and now I find out I’m one of them.”

With their years of experience in the onion industry as a solid foundation, Stewart and Robertson find themselves now working with Gen Z’ers, the newest younger generation to enter the work force — and the consumer/buyer ranks as well.

More Baby Boomers and, to a lesser extent Generation X’ers, are leaving the workforce every year, and Fort Boise, like every other company in the nation, is looking at ways to ease the labor void created by a combination of factors, including the Oregon minimum wage being raised to $9.75 per hour this year.

The two sales agents commented on shed automation, which has reduced the need for some manual labor and which heightens efficiency and quality. Robertson said that although Fort Boise has kept pace with automation, she noted, “We’re always going to need people.”

Stewart said labor in the area is “an extremely tough problem, and it’s not getting better. I’m seeing a lot more automation to make things easier and faster, and it’s being done out of necessity.”

The company is looking at advancements such as mechanized loading of rail cars, and Stewart noted in the past that such equipment would still require workers, but mechanization would make the process easier and more efficient.

Much of the company’s business is cartons, and other pack options include 50-pound sacks, 25-, 40- and 50-pound boxes, consumer boxes, euros, RPCs and display-ready cartons. A trace code for Fort Boise is ink-jetted onto each box as it’s filled and closed, and a box carousel has increased efficiency by moving built cartons to fillers.

Tech advances on the farm have also resulted in more efficiency.

More drip irrigation is added every year, and all new farm equipment is GPS.

Also top of mind with most shippers during the spring and early summer was a later planting due to the mega snowstorms that pounded the region in January and February, followed by a cold and wet spring.

The crop is somewhat later this year, much as it is across the Northwest.

Stewart said during the snowstorms, or Snowmageddon as it’s been dubbed, “There were times we couldn’t pack, a period where the entire Treasure Valley was shut down. We wee on the roof for two weeks, removing snow.”

Fort Boise didn’t lose any critical structures, but Stewart said a few older outlying buildings went down.

“We didn’t have any problems with structural losses. Our primary losses were in time and transportation, getting loads out,” he said.

But he added, “Even though the Treasure Valley is still paying for the damage from the storm, we’re coming back stronger than ever.”