With rich history propelling it forward, Diamond Fruit Growers hits 100 in 2013

An event totally unexpected on the Mayan calendar will take place on March 19, 2013, when Diamond Fruit Growers in Hood River, OR, hits the venerable age of 100 years.

The passage has not gone unnoticed.

According to Scott Marboe, marketing director for Wenatchee, WA-based Oneonta Starr Ranch, which handles exclusive sales for DFG, “When we took over the sales for Diamond, the industry was excited. It helped create stability in the marketplace, and it opened many more avenues for Diamond that they did not have before. Diamond-1949-shoppingThe 2013 ‘Diamond Starr Growers’ 100-year anniversary logo contrasts with a 1949 photo showing a post-WWII homemaker with her wicker shopping cart. The occasion was a sampling of Anjou pears in an upscale retail store. (Photo courtesy of Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers)Our partnerships with some of the best retail partners in North America, new international markets they did not have access to and a strong experienced marketing and sales team have greatly benefited all of us.”

The joining of forces with OSRG and the brand “Diamond Starr Growers” both came in 2008, 95 years after DFG was formed at a meeting of Hood River Valley growers. That original organization was a consolidation of four large shipping agencies, and the new entity was called the Apple Growers Association of Hood River.

Initially, AGA handled apples as well as peaches, cherries, strawberries and pears, and the brand “Diamond” was established.

Many changes occurred in the early years, including 1919’s dose of climate change in the form of a big freeze that killed or damaged much of the valley’s apple orchards. Over the course of several years, pear trees began to replace the apples.

During the turbulent 1920s the AGA saw its own changes, including a cannery in Hood River that processed strawberries, apples, cherries and Bartlett pears and produced vinegar and fruit juice.

Business held steady into the next decade, and in 1937 AGA built the world’s largest cold-storage facility in Hood River. The imposing structure stood four stories high and had capacity for 650,000 boxes.

When World War II broke out, a significant percentage of Northwest orchardists who were Japanese-Americans were forcibly moved to internment camps or other areas, and the region experienced a workforce shortage. It was also during World War II that the first Mexican workers arrived in the area.

The next two decades brought even more change to the region and the pear industry, with the Teamsters Union contracting with AGA in 1950 and continued expansion of the facilities going into the 1960s. It was the late 1950s when controlled atmosphere storage was first put into place, and 26,000 boxes of Anjous were kept in storage until spring 1959.

And in 1964 AGA changed to Diamond Fruit Growers Inc., adopting the name of its well-known label. The operation’s growth was rapid in the 60s, with the Odell, OR, plant added to the list of facilities. Odell, state-of-the-art in 1960, included a loading dock for a dozen trucks and three rail cars as well as a pre-sizing line — something unique in that era. Volume was up to 3.5 million boxes of grower fruit.

Exports commenced in the early 1970s, and rail was phased out in favor of refrigerated trucks. In the 80s, when disco reigned, DFG became the largest Anjou shipper in the nation, and in the mid-1990s DFG’s operation moved from Hood River to Odell after a fire burned the Hood River cold-storage building.

As the 1900s faded into the sunset, DFG retained its reputation for excellent fruit, and in 2008 it signed the agreement with Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers that made OSRG the exclusive marketer of Diamond-packed pears and cherries, all sold under the “Diamond Starr Growers” brand.

As rich as its history is, DFG looks to an equally fulfilling future, according to President and Cheif Executive Officer David Garcia. Mr. Garcia, who has been with Diamond since 1987, said growth will be less in physical expansion and more in technological advancements.

The Wyoming native who started with DFG as an entry-level accountant and worked his way through the ranks to the leadership role he has today, said, “I think five years out we will be looking at either putting in a new packingline or a major upgrade to our existing lines. Major chains are asking for their special boxes, requiring special handing and more labor, which is getting harder to find.”

He added that traceability and food safety are the biggest challenges facing the operation, and DFG is “able to track fruit from the orchard through our plant to the customer.”

While stores require high food-safety standards, there is no universal standard demanded by all stores, he said.

“The good part is that Diamond continues to meet or beat any food-safety requirements of our customers,” Mr. Garcia said. He added, “Food safety has reached the orchard level, and our growers are now USDA-certified and GlobalGAP-certified.”

Mr. Marboe said the Oneonta-Diamond arrangement is a win-win situation.

“As one of the pioneers in growing pears, Diamond has steadily grown over the years with fertile soil and generations of families who take pride in their operations and provide consistent quality year in and year out. This has built a following that people recognize worldwide,” Mr. Marboe said.

“The Hood River Valley is the premier growing region for pears in North America,” he added. “Great weather, rich soil and an abundance of fresh water create the perfect conditions for exceptional pear quality. The growers at Diamond also take great pride in what they do, running operations that are now second-, third- and even fourth-generation family orchards.”

Mr. Marboe concluded, “Diamond is continually striving to make improvements to their facilities and growing techniques, and they want to be a leader in the industry for many years to come. And we want to continue to make them stronger in the pear category.”

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