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Chris Sandwick brings new perspective to Belleharvest Farms

BELDING, MI — When Chris Sandwick joined the staff of Belleharvest Sales Inc., here, in January, the firm’s new vice president of sales and marketing brought some interesting and valuable experience.

Sandwick moved from Lake City, MN, where he worked for a decade and served as the director of sales and marketing for Courtier’s Pepin Heights. Pepin Heights focused on niche marketing and new special fruit varieties. Direct consumer contact is emphasized as Pepin Heights succeeds with an emphasis on tasty, popular new varieties.

At Belleharvest, Sandwick plans to promote Belleharvest’s apples through promoting tasty new varieties and encourage direct consumer involvement in the Belleharvest brand through social media.

2013-7-19-1205-Chris-BellehChris Sandwick, vice president of sales and marketing,shows operational options on an apple packingline.“We want to reach the end user and create an association where they are aware of the quality apples from Belleharvest. We will take advantage of all methodologies” to achieve the company goals.

“We are not trying to get people to buy more apples but to eat more apples.” He said social media is “so effective to connect directly to the end user. We can communicate our message better that a third party — the retailers have lots of products to sell.” His plan is for consumers go to retail stores and ask for the Belleharvest brand.

“Apple consumption is flat in the U.S. but production is up” nationally. “So, we need to look at other markets. In the 1990s, there were five consecutive crops that were as large as this one this year. So, this is not a ‘Mission Impossible’. But you always look for new people” to buy apples.

Sandwick noted there is a “cacophony” of food messages bombarding consumers. For a company like Belleharvest, “the only way to increase your consumer base is to have them move from [consuming] snacks to healthy apples.” The competition is not other apple or produce companies, but products from firms like Frito-Lay, Pepsi and M&M Mars.

Consumers are increasingly interested in the source of their food, Sandwick continued, so by “enhancing the Belleharvest brand, we have the opportunity to reach out to consumers. We need to do a lot of work yet” in that direction.

“Direct consumer engagement is essential for moving forward at Belleharvest, which continues to enhance its consumer recognition. We would like to create an opportunity for consumer feedback: ‘What did they buy?’ and ‘Who did they buy from?’ We need to have consumers talk about their experience. There has to be feedback. It is exciting if consumers say they like Honeycrisp or another apple. But we want further information. It is all about allowing folks to participate in the experience.”

Prior to joining Pepin Heights, Sandwick was a produce buyer for Supervalu, based in Eden Prairie, MN. His produce career started with the retail chain Byerly’s Stores, which has corporate headquarters in Edina, MN.

Sandwick observed that there is limited shelf space in retail stores for apples. At the same time, “there are new, great-tasting varieties, which is good for the entire industry. Unfortunately, many of the varieties won’t make it. They are not distinctive enough. To gain the limited spots” on retail shelves, the varieties “have got to stand out and have an advantage over something else.”

To find the exceptional new varieties that will succeed commercially, Belleharvest is involved with fruit breeders in the United States and worldwide. “We have our eyes open for the next opportunity. Marketing is only fun when you have good products.”

“This is the first year in a new cycle,” he added, noting that over the last decade Michigan apple production showed a tendency to be up and down on alternate years. Even though the devastating freeze that struck the 2012 Michigan crop was an extremely unusual event, that crop still fit within the opposite-year low apple production pattern of the Great Lakes State.

Sandwick said apple growers’ “goal in Michigan is to have a consistent crop every year.” He credited Michigan apple growers with “generally doing a really nice job” of producing apples. This including placing frost-fighting wind machines in orchards and increasingly planting high-density orchards. Such practices “allow growers to have more tools to manage the crop.” With high-density plantings, “if you have more trees to blossom, you have more chances to get it right.”

The high-density plantings may have 800 or even 1,000 trees per acre. If even 10 percent of that many trees are protected by wind machines “that is a significant investment. You can’t afford low-density plantings.”

High-density plantings also “make it easier to protect more fruit.” Sandwick added. “The battle is uncertain weather in the spring. I think this year began a cycle with much more sustainable production.”

Belleharvest’s retail customers are west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Belleharvest packages many apples under Michigan’s “Great Lakes Great Flavors” brand. The firm also packs private labels for different customers. Those efforts won’t shift, Sandwick said. “But they will be complemented with a strong Belleharvest brand presence.”

Belleharvest this summer is building six new controlled-atmosphere storage rooms, which will bring the company to a capacity to hold 520,000 bushels in controlled atmosphere. “That is on site. Then we have partnerships with other packinghouses. They also pack and store.”