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Central Produce Distributors ‘old-school’ but eyeing change

Though they call themselves “old-school” in terms of some shed technology and in social media, Central Produce Distributors in Payette, ID, is looking at some significant changes in the next 12 months.

President/GM Ray Burzota, Sales Manager Dan Phillips and Transportation Manager Dan Conklin didn’t share specifics in June 2017, but the three men did note that as a result of structural losses during the massive snowstorms in January and February, a new 20,000-square-foot production and storage area as well as 14,000 square feet of additional storage are being looked at.

Burzota said the builder will go with a heavier roof in light of the weather anomaly in 2017. “We’re going to be way more proactive,” he said.

Fortunately, the building that fell to the snowload was not occupied.

“We lost a canopy area to the storm,” Phillips said. In addition to the structure collapse, crews found themselves contending with snow removal to keep other buildings safe for occupancy.

“We tried to utilize our own resources,” Phillips said. “The crews would work eight-hour shifts and then worked on snow removal. It was an extreme situation.”

The silver lining from the storm is the new production and storage facilities, and both Burzota and Phillips hinted there could be more in the works.

“We’re pretty ‘old-school,’” Phillips said. “We do have automated baggers that weigh and fill, but we’re in the process of doing some stuff.”

“Expect changes for 2018,” Burzota added.  

In operation since the 1950s, Central Produce Distributors handles only onions, working its own acreage and onions from a longtime grower core in the Treasure Valley.

Thirty percent of the company’s volume goes to foodservice, and 70 percent goes to domestic retailers and wholesalers. Phillips said that the slogan “Buy American” holds special meaning as the company focuses on providing the best quality, a range of sizes and personalized service for its customers.

“The onion deal is getting ore and more size-specific every year,” Phillips said. “A customer may want a certain size at one time and then another size another time. And we take care of them.”

He added, “I have heard through the grapevine that some growers had variety changes this year to come off earlier, but our foodservice and processing customers have specific varieties and sizes, and we work hard to accommodate them.”

As they looked to the 2017 season and, Central Produce, like virtually every other shipper in the region, expected some difficulties in securing labor

“It’s becoming an increasingly serious issue,” Phillips said. “Last year was the worst we’ve ever seen it, and we expect it to continue.”

He said that between 80 and 85 percent of the seasonal workers Central employs “come back year after year, but it’s hard work.”

And, he said, as the older workers drop out of the workforce, younger replacements are not necessarily stepping up to fill the vacancies.

The minimum wage is less a factor than might be expected. Idaho’s minimum wage is currently $7.25; neighboring Oregon has a minimum wage of $9.75.

“We will have to pay whatever the prevailing wage is,” Burzota said. “It could be $9.50. And so we’re looking at increased automation, and we’re spending a lot of time improving what we have.”

On the farm side of the equation, tech upgrades are being made annually.

“Right now we’re approaching 60 percent drip irrigation,” Burzota said. “There are a couple of guys who do a really good job with furrows, and there are others who do really well with drip. But consider the fact that four years ago we didn’t have any drip at all.”

He said a few farmers in the region are using drones to monitor crop health and watering, too.

The men noted that while social media is not part of their current business model, it bears further consideration.

“The company isn’t really engaged in it, but we have talked about it,” Burzota said. Phillips added, “I think it’s useful for looking for new business, but not many of the people I talk to really use it for their businesses. But we’ll be looking at it.”

And, Burzota and Phillips agreed, as the workforce is increasingly made up of Millennials and even Gen Z’ers, social media will become a more common communication tool.

“We need young people in the work environment, and they’re very active in social media,” Burzota commented.