The Hood River Valley, which stretches from Mount Hood to the Columbia River, provides a virtually ideal climate for growing pears. As one of Oregon’s most expensive housing markets, however, the valley is less than ideal for sustaining the workforce needed to process the local crop. But Duckwall Fruit would not be thriving after more than a century without the ability to adapt to challenges, from evolving markets to labor scarcity.
Then known as Duckwall Brothers, the company was born in 1919 after John Duckwall sent apples he’d grown in his Hood River orchard to brother William St. Clair in Indianapolis. Returns were good, and Duckwall’s neighbors asked to include some of their fruit in the next year’s shipment. Spotting a promising business opportunity, Duckwall quickly shifted his focus from growing fruit to shipping it, setting up the company’s first office in Hood River in 1926 and traveling to Europe three years later to establish export markets.
In 1958, Duckwall Brothers moved the company’s facilities to Odell, which sits in the heart of the Hood River Valley. Following a merger with the Pooley Fruit Company 13 years later, the company adopted the name by which it’s known today. It’s still operated by the Duckwall family, now in its fourth generation of ownership.
Much has changed even as Duckwall’s ownership has remained constant.
Though John Duckwall’s first shipment consisted of apples, Duckwall Fruit transitioned entirely to pears by the early 2000s. It now ships nine varieties, though three – the Anjou, Bosc and Bartlett – make up about 95% of its volume. In recent years, Duckwall Fruit has begun to market apples again. The company now provides Cosmic Crisp apples, along with numerous other varieties, packaged under its supervision.
The company’s foreign markets have evolved as well. Regulatory restrictions, followed by COVID-related supply chain disruptions, squeezed the European market that once consumed so much Duckwall fruit. The company’s largest export partners are now the closest. Mexico is Duckwall’s largest foreign market by a substantial margin, followed by Canada. The company also ships pears throughout Central and South America.
In one important way, Duckwall’s experience in Europe continues to serve the company well. To take advantage of a very narrow European import window, Duckwall Fruit years ago began to presize pears according to size and quality. Fruit of similar size was then stored together in advance of shipping. Presizing, as this is known, allowed the company to maximize the volume of fruit shipped while the import window was open, says company President Ed Weathers.
Duckwall may not ship any fruit to Europe these days, but the need to presize fruit remains. Blame packaging, which is no longer simply a matter of putting pears in boxes. Duckwall Fruit now packs fruit in transparent bags and pouches, in boxes that hold pears in molded trays, and more. Such packaging requires fruit of similar size and quality.
Duckwall has invested accordingly. In 2020, the company installed an Italian-built optical presize defect sorter (photo above), which separates pears according to size and quality. Shipping a large piece of machinery from Europe during the COVID pandemic wasn’t easy. Once operational, though, the machine addressed not only the company’s sorting needs, but also its acute seasonal labor problem.
Duckwall Fruit employs roughly 200 people for most of the year and adds up to 150 in late summer, when pears are harvested and processed. Given the remoteness of the Hood River Valley and the extremely high cost of housing, Duckwall can no longer rely upon the availability of seasonal labor. Without its new sorter, the company could not have processed the 2020 crop, says Weathers. And even with the sorter, the company was short about 20 to 30 people every day throughout the 2021-22 season, when a large crop kept Duckwall very busy.
The company intends to gain even more efficiency through technology, says Special Projects and Maintenance Manager Nathan Duckwall, who helped oversee the installation of the presize defect sorter. Future investments may include automated bag packaging, which will pack bags more efficiently with greater throughput. This automated process also will provide more flexibility in an era of increased package proliferation.
While automation can fill the void created by workers Duckwall Fruit can’t find, the company works hard to retain those it has. Duckwall Fruit’s least senior packer has been with the company for about 15 years and its most senior for over 38, says Project and Communications Director Sara Duckwall. She credits the absence of a rigid corporate structure, a family atmosphere and a quality once noted by an inspector who said while walking through the plant, “You’re a big company that acts like a small one.”