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Obendorf strengthens vertical integration, grows nearly all its packed onions

By
Kathleen Thomas Gaspar

Since expanding their onion-growing operation to that of grower/packer/shipper in 2019, brothers Phil and Brock Obendorf have consistently strengthened the company’s vertical integration each year. This season, Parma, ID-baed Obendorf has made changes to both the packingshed and farm.

“We are continually making improvements in the packingshed to increase the quality of product our customers are receiving,” Phil Obendorf said. “While they may not be huge capital projects, we are identifying small areas of improvement that we hope our customers will recognize.”

Obendorf said the company customer base since the start has included retail, wholesale and foodservice, noting, “Our focus in 2023 remains the same. However, a goal for the upcoming season is getting into new markets and regions we haven’t shipped to in previous seasons.”

He added, “We are very excited to be the grower of 95 percent of the onions that will be packed in our facility this year. This gives us great insight into the product that we will be packing, and we believe this will increase our quality as well.”

The packing facility can pack bulk totes, which can weigh anywhere from 2,100 to 3,000 pounds and also offers 50- and 25-pound sacks as well as 40-pounds. They also have the ability to sticker every onion for retail.

Over the past year, Obendorf said, “We have added our last two lanes of internal quality cameras. This allows us to increase the overall speed at which we run as well as increase our quality.”

There is also a new 5,000-bin storage this year, he said. With capacity for 7.75 million pounds, the new storage is located adjacent to the packingshed, and Obendorf said, “It will help us ensure we accurately monitor and manipulate the storage environment.”

New bag labels are being introduced this season, and Obendorf said the team is “excited to show off some of our work over the summer. We want our labels to represent the things that matter most to us, like family, the community we take so much pride being born and raised in and the diversity of our operation.”

The labels are “Wilder Bench Ringer” for yellows, “Emmy’s Award Winners” for medium reds and “Ranch Hand” for reds.

While some change has been introduced in the past 12 months, the team has stayed stable. Obendorf said, “Going into the 2023-2024 packing season we will have the same crew as last year. We are thankful for the retention of the same employees. Having people that already know our program makes it easier for a smoother/safer start to the season.”

The melding of traditional and cutting-edge is part of Obendorf Produce’s start, with founding grandfather Ray Obendorf, at age 100, continuing to instill respect of history in his grandsons. When his father died, Ray began farming onions in 1937 at age 14, and he started his own farm in 1948. His life since then has been committed to quality product, and the centenarian still loves to ride with Phil and Brock to check fields. His grandsons express gratitude for Ray’s “sweat equity” that gave rise to the company today — in addition to the Spanish Sweets, Obendorf Farms raises more than 3,000 acres of hops, 1,200 acres of row crops and 800 head of cattle.”

As the fourth season of growing/packing/shipping onions kicked off in 2023, Phil Obendorf reflected on 2022, saying, “Overall, we are very pleased with how last year’s season went. We achieved average to above-average yields with great quality throughout the season.”

After some weather challenges earlier, “Last harvest was ideal,” Obendorf said. “Weather was nice throughout October, which gave us the ability to leave things in the field longer than anticipated. Field curing onions makes for better quality. We believe outside storage is one of the best; leaving bins of onions in the fresh air helps them dry out.”

Looking at ongoing issues, he commented, “Labor continues to be a major area of focus, with wages continually outpacing the increase in value of the crops we grow. We are lucky and thankful for the folks that continue to come to work for us every season. Their hard work and attention to detail every year are a big part of our success.”

He also commented on shipping: “We are hopeful that our current, sustained shipping methods continue to thrive and further develop. We ship onions via truck and rail, which gives us incredible versatility. Not relying solely on one method of transportation gives us more flexibility each season; however, when trucks and rail cars do not show up as scheduled, it makes it difficult to keep packing product. Floor space only goes so far, and it can make a big building seem small. Being in consistent communication with trucks and customers gives us a better idea of when to expect transportation to arrive.”

Kathleen Thomas Gaspar

About Kathleen Thomas Gaspar  |  email

Kathleen is a Colorado native and has been writing about produce for more than three decades and has been a professional journalist for more than four decades. Over the years she’s covered a cornucopia of crops grown both in the United States and abroad, and she’s visited dozens of states – traveling by car from her home base in Colorado to the Northwest and Southeast, as far as Vancouver, BC, and Homestead, FL. Now semi-retired, Kathleen continues to write about produce and is also penning an ongoing series of fiction novels. She’s a wife, mother of two grown sons and grandmother of six, and she and her fly fisherman husband Abe reside in the Banana Belt town of Cañon City.

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