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Baker & Murakami's first post-merger season

Noting that current supplies will take Ontario, OR-based Baker & Murakami Produce through its planned shipping season, company CEO Grant Kitamura said the operation is “managing orders and being orderly about how we’re marketing our onions” during this inaugural season of business.

With the merger of Baker Packing and Murakami Produce earlier this year, the new operation brings at least twice the volume of either single company to the market. Though yields in 2017 were reduced due to severe winter conditions and a cold, wet spring that delayed planting for much of the Treasure Valley, Kitamura added all orders are being met, and he said, “We are shipping everything in terms of sizes and colors, and we will go into April with our onions.”

bakermurakamiearlyconstruction Fotor Baker & Murakami Produce principals Jerry Baker, Steve Baker and Grant Kitamura on site in Ontario, OR. He said, “The biggest challenge was the wet and cool spring, which caused some stand issues and reduced yields.” Kitamura went on to say, “But all in all it’s been a good season, and I can see we’ve done the right thing with the merger and with the new equipment we have.”

Packing at the existing Baker Packing site, Baker & Murakami is using European-designed automation, and Kitamura said the new line is performing well.

“There are five pieces of equipment that are all programmed independently,” he said. “But it’s been really impressive, and it’s been described as the most automated line in America.” He added that going into 2018 he and co-owners Jerry and Steve Baker are “looking to increase our volume and our position in the local industry. We want to utilize the new equipment closer to its capacity, and that will involve additional staff to help us do that.”

Labor has been one of the biggest challenges for the industry, he said. “We were short on labor for harvest, and fortunately we need fewer people in the shed [with the automation in place]. But we do run into trouble filling the positions we have.”

During the summer state legislation set aside some $26 million for a transload center in Malheur County, and a separate bill signed into law by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown provides funding for the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board, which has yet to be formed, Kitamura said.

The transportation measure resulted in the creation of Malheur County Development Corp., a group made up of onion industry representatives as well as other regional stakeholders. Kitamura sits as president of the group, and he said he hopes the economic development board is established soon as it “ties into the labor issue.”

Transportation as a whole is another issue affecting the industry, and Kitamura said the end result of an electronic logging measure for trucks could be “the equivalent of taking 20 percent of trucks off the road” by eliminating “a lot of road hours.”

“We’re looking forward to the transload facility within the next 18 months,” he said. A site is expected to be finalized in December, and construction will start “as fast as possible.”