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Congdon Orchards Inc. is the latest Washington producer of apples, pears and cherries to join forces with grower cooperative FirstFruits of Washington, headquartered in Yakima, WA. FirstFruits Chief Executive Officer Keith Mathews said that the company is a welcome addition. "They really help round us out," he told The Produce News in mid-December. In all, Congdon will bring a half-million packages each for apples, pears and cherries to the table.

Mr. Mathews characterized the 2010-11 apple season by saying, “Business is remarkably good. We're very pleased. We’ve been able to progress our customer base.”

The company specializes in high volumes of Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith and Honeycrisp bolstered by good quality on Reds, Goldens and other apple varieties. In a previous interview, Mr. Mathews said FirstFruits anticipated marketing 8.5 million cartons of apples for the 2010-11 season. Fifteen percent of overall volume is organic.

Cool, wet conditions during production resulted in more blush on Fuji, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious than is typical, resulting in some reduced grade. “Some will go for third-grade packaging or processing,” he went on to say. “Supplies will be restricted in the coming months.”

This is the second season for marketing of the Opal apple variety, a firm, sweet yellow apple grown exclusively by cooperative member Broetje Orchards in Prescott, WA. FirstFruits has exclusive rights to market the Opal in the United States. “We have a small volume, but production doubled,” Mr. Mathews noted. “We’ve had wonderful retail acceptance. I have been exceptionally pleased with the response.”

Sales for the Opal, available as both convention and organic product, will conclude at the end of the month. “When you have something sparkling, you offer it to your good customers,” he added.

All apples marketed by the company are sold to global customers under the “FirstFruits” label.

Mr. Mathews was asked about apple pricing, given the brisk movement of the crop to the marketplace. “Pricing averages are above what we expected this year and better than last year,” he replied. Two or three years ago, he said that retailers used apples as a profit center. For the 2010-11 crop, he said retail competition is strong.

Members of the cooperative are committed to agricultural sustainability and product traceability. To illustrate, he said that Broetje Orchards has worked extensively to meet the most stringent Safe Quality Foods safety and quality management program standards. “We’re on target for [the Produce Traceability Initiative]. It’s expensive, but all of us in the industry have, in every case, to be traceable. Producers are moving forward rapidly.”