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Award lauds Murakami Produce’s energy efficiency

Last year’s renovations to conserve energy at Murakami Produce reaped both a significant savings in storage-facility power costs and a prestigious award from Idaho Power.

Murakami General Manager Grant Kitamura said that the award was presented this summer and recognized the onion-shipping operation as among the top-10 best Idaho Power projects for the year.

At the Ontario, OR, facility, some 250,000 square feet are insulated on-site storage, and each of the 75,000 bins has capacity for 1,500 pounds of field-run onions. To reduce the operation’s carbon footprint, funding was sought from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Idaho Power and the Department of Energy.

Grants specifically for computer-controlled, variable-speed, frequency-drive fans were secured, and a ventilation system that is controlled like a dimmer switch was installed in 14 buildings. The company also replaced its lights with an automatic-shut-off system.

Last year Mr. Kitamura anticipated a savings upward of $100,000 per year, and he said in mid-September that the meters have read less each month since the new equipment was installed.

Mr. Kitamura also emphasized that in addition to more efficiency and a “greener” presence in the produce industry, Murakami also has better quality control with the new ventilation system.

Looking at the 2011 harvest and the onset of the shipping season, Mr. Kitamura said, “We started packing on Sept. 6, and in the 31 years I’ve been here, this is the first time we’ve not packed in August.”

Like last year’s onset, this season got a later start due to a cold spring and slower growing conditions.

“We’re at least two weeks behind,” he said, noting that other growing areas are in similar time frames.

Referring to the term “normal” as a “moving target,” Mr. Kitamura said that the later harvest should provide supplies throughout the winter. And he said that quality has not been compromised.

“The crop itself looks good,” Mr. Kitamura continued. “Yields are where they should be: there is good skin, and quality is very good. Sizing is smaller than last year. There are not as many oversized onions in the mix.”

Murakami has been trending more to retail over the past few years, and Mr. Kitamura said that some varieties and cultural practices have been adopted to produce retail-preferred sizes. Yellow Spanish Sweets make up approximately 90 percent of the overall volume, but Mr. Kitamura said that Murakami has “always had a good market share in reds, too.”

In 2006, the shipper became part of the Potandon Produce sales group, but Chris Woo, Georgie Gabica and Gary Belknap continue to handle sales from the Ontario office as well.

In addition to Positive Lot Identification through the Oregon Department of Agriculture for trace-back and food safety, Murakami is also a member of Certified Onions Inc., which provides testing for 100 percent of Murakami’s onions.

“We are very proud of COI to have the foresight to do this testing,” Mr. Kitamura said.

“This looks like a promising year. The product will be good, and the economy is what it is,” he said. “We are trying everything we know to be suppliers of good onions, and hopefully consumers pay attention to what they eat. We believe that if people want to know how to fix the economy, they should buy domestic.”