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Champion Produce emphasizes ‘Premium Onion’ from Idaho-Eastern Oregon

Noting the unusual conditions leading into 2017’s Idaho-Eastern Oregon onion season, the team at Champion Produce Sales in Parma, ID, have doubled down on their commitment to providing customers with the great quality that is part of the Treasure Valley’s game plan.

According to Champion Grower/Industry Relations Manager Dallas Jensen, the company’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by its well-established customer base.

Jensen said the “Buy American” theme of USA Onions resonates with buyers, and it’s one way the shipper focuses on its grower base as well.

He said, “You know, we have been pretty fortunate to have a great customer base that appreciates the exceptional quality of a Northwest onion grown in Idaho-Eastern Oregon.

And as a shipper, we have really tried to further that concept by focusing on our growers, helping them to be able to focus on growing quality over yield and really understanding what makes both of us successful.”

Jensen continued, “We strongly feel that if we can consistently produce a ‘Premium Onion,’ our customers will continue to demand our USA Idaho-Oregon onions.”

That, he said, is win-win.

Champion’s roots were established in 1946 when Ed Wong started Wong Farms and began growing Idaho onions. The elder Wong was followed by his son, Ralph, in the late 1950s, and current owner John Wong started Champion Produce in 1984. Tanner Wong, John’s son and the family’s fourth generation of onion growers, joined the family business in 2012.

The sales arm, Champion Produce Sales, was launched in 2007 with John Wong as president and Dwayne Fisher as vice president. The company team also includes Brad Dines in food safety, Tyler Christoffersen in transportation, and Wong, Fisher, Cheryl Leavitt, and Monica Gibbons in sales. Support staffer Tiffany Tamura assists at Tamura, and Theresa Bond works in food safety and administration at Champion West. Additional support comes from DeDe Fogg and Dawn Main.

Representing Champion Produce, Champion Produce West, Tamura Farms and Triple J Produce, the operation is one of the largest produce suppliers in the Northwest, and in addition to handling a growing customer base, the company also keeps pace with the lighting-fast advancements in technology and communication.

And over the last decade, Champion Produce Sales has expanded at a rate of between 5 and 10 percent annually and has seen significant advancements on every front, including more storage, increased use of drip irrigation, expansion in quality control and food safety programs.

Within the last half-dozen years Champion has seen huge strides in its irrigation practices, coming from about 20 percent to the majority of acres now under drip. More of the farming operations are using GPS tractors, and the storages provide ambient temperature storage for a longer shipping season.

Upgrades to the line at Champion West brought it to comparable efficiency as that at Champion.

With eight buildings at the Champion site, four at Champion West, four at Tamura and three in Utah, the company provides computerized temperature control, all monitored by mobile device

And along with the tech upgrades to the production side, communication has made advancements with a lively web site, www.championproduce.com, and good use of social media strongholds like Facebook and Instagram.

“We can be found on Instagram at @onions_forever and on Facebook as Champion Produce,” Jensen said. The hashtag is “ #onionmafia.”

Jensen explained that staying current with the tech communication landscape falls within his grower/industry relations purview, and he said, “Social media is an ever-changing piece in what we do. As it evolves, we are hoping to promote a knowledge of the ag world and really highlight the growers and all that they do for us.”

Reaching an audience made up of “mostly growers in other regions, and people who are in the industry,” Champion Produce Sales is “building relationships with those followers, and we have been able to gather information on market trends, weather and growing conditions.”

Jensen said, “This information helps us forecast for our upcoming season, and as the audience grows, we hope to educate those who are not in the industry on what it takes to produce a quality onion.

There has been a real focus lately on knowing where your food comes from, and we will continue to promote USA Onions and in particular the foodie culture — and the desire for premium locally grown produce.”  

At the same time, the Champion sales team also relies on customer relations built through in-person meetings, phone calls, email and text – based on the preferences of buyers.

Of course no operation is without trials, and Jensen allowed that winter 2016-17 was “a tough one!”

He said that the storms of January and February, “Snowmageddon,” resulted in the loss of three storage buildings and 3 million pounds of onions.

“We are on track to have them rebuilt in time for this next harvest,” Jensen said in early July. “As with most construction projects we have seen delays and setbacks, but we knew going into it that this would occur. We will have some increased storage capacity due to different roof lines, and the latest technology for climate control.”

Most important, he said, “We are just so grateful that through all the destruction, none of our people were hurt. And this winter definitely impacted more than just the shippers as well.  Many growers lost shops, carports and other structures due to the abnormal snow loads.”

But with true All-American spirit, he said, “As always, you rebuild and hope next year will be different.”

There’s also the issue of labor, which Jensen said is “tough.”

He said, “We have really tried to find a happy medium between automation and labor. Our sheds are equipped with some of the latest technology available to help eliminate some of the labor cost, but at the same time, we feel that there are some jobs that cannot be done by a machine. In the packing process there are steps that require a hands-on approach, and we have great employees who get that done efficiently. And we continue to evaluate and reassess options in technology as they arise.”