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Generations bear testament to Watson sustainability

Now in its fifth generation since founded by James Christopher Watson 105 years ago, J.C. Watson Packing Co. in Parma, ID, measures success by both longevity in the produce industry and by fruitful stewardship of the land it farms.

James, a pharmacist from Iowa whose entrepreneurial spirit was boundless, became a driving force in the Treasure Valley in the early part of the 20th century, and today, as JCW President Jon Watson, grandson of James, and Jon’s wife, Margie, keep the corporate course steady, their son, Bradley, and son-in-law, Colbie Libsack, maintain a precise cutting edge in technology at the packing and farming levels as operations manager and crop manager, respectively.

Also on the sales and production company team are Marc Asumendi, vice president of grower relations, and Kent Sutherland, sales manager.

And in the wings is that fifth generation: Brad and his wife, Faere, are the parents of two young daughters, Jane and Anne; and Colbie and Emily, who is the daughter of Jon and Margie, are also parents of a baby Harper Mae.

The Watson family draws heavily from James Christopher’s playbook and principles from the early 1900s that still work well today in growing, packing and shipping the famed Spanish Sweets of Idaho-Eastern Oregon. And in 2017 the team also makes good use of ingenuity from all corners of the world to fashion a uniquely American protocol.

Drones, GPS and remotely controlled computerization all part of JCW’s day-to-day operations, and the end result, Jon Watson said earlier this year, is that the right product reaches the receiver.

“The person downstream in line to get the Watson product is who we grow for,” Watson said, adding that getting to know “our customer’s customer as well as he does” is critical to success.

Quick to credit his grandfather and father, James Frederick Watson, as “true pioneers” in the Idaho-Eastern Oregon produce industry, Jon Watson said the company introduced the first platform outside a railcar to facilitate packing lettuce under James Christopher.

J.C. also provided wholesome food for America during the lean years of the mid-1930s, raising and shipping apples, onions and russet potatoes. The line continued into World War II, and J.C. Watson shipped produce across the country.

In 1951 the company founder passed away, and James Frederick took the helm both of the company and in his father’s respected civic leader role as well.

It was in 1973 that Jon joined the family business, using his degrees in business and applied engineering that he earned at the University of Idaho.

Following the death of Jim Watson, Jon became president, and he and Margie have carried on the legacy of community involvement.

Holding onto tradition and moving ahead with progress works well for JCW, which in 2005 began individually stickering onions, a practice that ultimately became an industry standard. The product line has changed, with year-round onions the entire focus of the company.

This year the operation has added two new refrigerated storages, which Brad Watson said extends the season and maintains the quality of the onions.

The packingshed uses state-of-the-art equipment, upgrading color sizing and sorting technology and adding both reefer and drying to all the storages.

Jon Watson said earlier in the spring that all Watson onions are put into drying conditioning at the time of harvest, and reefer is started in February and March, “all in the same facility.” He said the temperature is gradually lowered to 38F and held until the onions are run. Then the product is warmed up before being shipped.

Another tech advancement is sizing at harvest, which Brad Watson said adds to the product value.

Brad said another high-tech step forward is the sizing at harvest, which adds value to the product.

And the farm uses multiple bed vacuum planters that that accomplish the planting process in fewer passes and in a shorter period.

Each pass plants 32 rows lighter-coated seed with controlled spacing and puts in the drip tape, which Jon Watson said is part of the company’s sustainability program.

Brad Watson noted that a decade ago the process was accomplished through one pass to shape the beds, another pass to put the tape in and another pass for the seed. “We had six tractors. Today we have two,” he commented.

Irrigation is monitored with weather systems, and Jon Watson uses a drone to for observation and checking the water.

Another sustainability measure in place is the use of biofumigants and cover crop programs. Drip complexes are used on all the onions, “most with 100-150 acres per complex,” provide what Jon Watson said is “more consistency, more efficiency,” and he called irrigation management “key to production storability.”

Looking at labor, Jon Watson said the shed has added efficiency each year for the last several, but he also noted that every onion is checked by a person at the line. “We will never entirely eliminate that human element,” he said.

Foodservice and process are home for the majority of JCW Packing Co. onions, but the company also does fresh-cut and “a fair amount of retail.”