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Eagle Eye/Fiesta Farms correlates health returns to ‘Buy American’

In a thoughtful answer, Fiesta Farms President Marc Bybee said there are many angles from which to view the USA Onions promo theme of “Buy American,” but he honed in on the twin issues of quality and healthy products to address the matter succinctly.

“The patriot in me hopes that buying American is important to all domestic customers and at a minimum it is a consideration,” Bybee said from his Nyssa, OR, office in early July. He continued, “But the realist in me understands that it’s a world market and that customer service, great product and pricing are the more likely determining tool.”

With equipment and supplies coming from a variety of sources, Bybee said, “I’d be a bit of a hypocrite to always expect it when I’m buying a mix of equipment and packaging both domestically and overseas.” But “Buy American” is nonetheless a driving factor in the domestic onion industry, and he said, “I think the better message might be to educate the consumer about the different levels of food safety in the United States versus other areas of the world and about differences between many domestic onion shippers with and without food safety programs.”

Bybee said, “History, regulations and science have told us that produce from the U.S. is grown and packaged under more scrutiny and this unfortunately drives up its cost, but what cost is your health?”

The bottom line, the longtime onion grower-shipper said, is “So my family does make a conscious effort to buy U.S.-grown food when it’s available because it’s better for us. If my family is healthy I’ll get that extra cost of the U.S. produce back by staying away from the doctor. And maybe that’s the underlying message in ‘Buy American.’” 

For more than 40 years Fiesta Farms has produced Spanish Sweets in the Treasure Valley of Idaho-Eastern Oregon. In 2014 the company formed a sales alliance with Eagle Eye Produce for sales and marketing, with Marc Bybee handling production and quality control, his wife, Tamara, handling administration and Fiesta Farms’ CEO Garry Bybee continuing to work some of his longtime sales accounts.

Fiesta Farms onions are shipped under both Fiesta and Eagle Eye labels, and Marc Bybee said, “Eagle Eye is a very professional marketing company with a great customer base.”

The restructuring has allowed both the Bybees and Eagle Eye to focus on their strengths, Marc Bybee said at the time the alliance was established. And Garry Bybee, who headed the company since the 1970s when he took over an operation owned by himself and siblings, continues to maintain a strong presence in the industry, providing input when asked what “Buy American” means to him.

He said it should translate to a level playing field for the U.S. onion industry, “making sure other onion-producing countries work by the same rules and do not use illegal chemicals.” He said other countries should also be subject to third-party audits.

“The only thing the American public cares about is a good product at a reasonable price,” Garry Bybee said. “We go through great efforts to verify we have no chemical residue, and no one in the United States wants to put out anything except the very best quality.” 

To maintain top quality while at the same time addressing the shortage of labor, Fiesta Farms is working to stay current with equipment technology.

Marc Bybee said, “Our short-term plans include upgrading equipment, automating what we can and looking to remove the jobs with the most physically demanding labor requirements.”

Garry Bybee said he sees labor situation “continuing to get worse,” that even though there are a “multitude of openings for labor, labor is very difficult to come by.”

He said, “In some cases wages are not the issue.” Bybee said that in the region’s onion industry, “Most of the labor has been around for many years.” But as that labor pool ages, he said, “The younger generation is not interested in following in the older footsteps.”

Marc Bybee noted that in the long-term, the company will “look at additional ways to rely on less personnel while paying higher wages to those willing and able to operate more technical equipment,” Bybee said. “ We also listen to what our customers want and try to provide it for them consistently. Consistency is very important, and some seasons it is the biggest challenge as there are factors such as weather that we just can’t control.”  

Weather has been top-of-mind to the entire Treasure Valley, with the devastation caused by last winter’s storms a widespread issue.

“We were fortunate, at great cost and effort, not to have lost any critical structures,” Marc Bybee said. “We started moving snow off of roofs a bit earlier than most other shippers at the urging of our farming division. Those few extra days seemed to be enough to get us through the winter without structural loss.”

But he added, “The irony of Snowmageddon is that those packingsheds with great loss will likely be far ahead of those who ‘survived.’”

The region was “on the edge of major change here anyway, but winter accelerated things greatly.”

Looking at the advancements in marketing through social media, Eagle Eye Vice President Lance Poole said the he has seen big strides in reaching a variety of audiences with the onion message.

“We do currently use social media, mainly Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. Over the last few years we’ve grown our following to over 25,000 people and use these platforms for a variety of different purposes, but mainly to keep in touch with the end-consumer and send out information as to what is going on within our company and within the industry,” Poole said.  

Reaching Millennials and Gen Z’ers is key, and Poole said it’s possibly easier because Eagle Eye does “employ quite a few of them.”

He said that “because they grew up with technology, they are at times more easily trained on our different systems. We’ve also found that they often think more ‘outside of the box’ and can be very creative and passionate when engaged in a project they care about.”

And “as far as younger consumers, we’ve developed and are continuing to developing some various products like our Simply Good, Simply Fresh-Fresh Blends that cook quickly in the microwave. Our thought is that by providing quick, ready-to-eat and grab-n-go produce items, these younger generations will still be able to fit fresh produce into their busy on-the-go meals.”