The best from the Northwest

The distinctive climate of the Northwest makes for some of the most well-received produce and seafood in the country.

The Northwest region of the U.S. is not renowned for its weather. But the diverse climate, ranging from the rainy coast to arid mountainous regions, has its benefits. The weather sets the stage for near-perfect growing conditions for many fruits and vegetables. Each year the Northwest region, consisting of Washington, Idaho and parts of Oregon, yields enough tree fruits, potatoes and onions to fill the bellies of consumers and wallets of retailers—and each year production increases.

“No other growing region in the world boasts diurnal temperature variations up to 50 degrees,” says Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing at Rainier Fruit Co. “Our long warm days and cool nights, combined with well-draining volcanic soil and dry summers create fruit of exceptional flavor and quality. Washington apples, cherries and pears are world renowned for their flavor and quality.”

The Pacific Northwest is also recognized for what swims within its waters. Off the coast, the North Pacific Ocean yields an abundant seafood supply that is recognized for its quality.

As more consumers are taking an interest in where their food comes from and striving to “buy local,” Northwest produce growers and fisheries are capitalizing on their ideal location. For many it is the cornerstone to their marketing campaigns, promoting sustainability efforts, state-of-the-art facilities and new sought-after varieties. Here are some things retailers can expect to see coming soon out of the Northwest.

Organics in bloom

Rainier is shifting its focus. Known extensively for its cherries, the Selah, Wash.-based grower is finding a niche in organic blueberry production. The arid environment means fewer impediments, such as mold and mildew, says Wolter, making the area more conducive to large-scale organic farming.

The soil and climate has allowed Rainier to develop a blueberry different from other regions. “The varieties we produce have excellent size, firmness and flavor, which exceeds customer expectations,” says Wolter. Retailers should look for a new label on the organic blueberry clamshells this season designed specifically to differentiate it as an organic product.

With organic still growing in popularity, Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, based in Wenatchee, Wash., has also taken a leap into the sector. Through a partnership with Columbia Valley, Oneonta will be marketing a variety of organic fruit, including top-selling apple varieties of Fuji, Gala, Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Honeycrisp.

“Consumers still see value in organic and respond to the message it sends,” says Addie Pobst, import coordinator for the organic produce grower CF Fresh, based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. “There is a flavor, health and environmental component that all wraps up into a really appealing package. Organic has become more mainstream and that means more exposure, which means more demand.”

Adults and parents may see a big benefit in shopping organic, but it does little to grab kids’ attention. With childhood obesity in the national spotlight, many companies are jumping aboard programs to promote healthy-eating habits directed at children.

One such program is Fuel Up and Play 60, an in-school program that empowers kids to improve their nutrition and physical activity. Chelan Fresh, based in Chelan, Wash., introduced the program into the retail environment last year to help children make the connection outside their school. This year, Rainier Fruit Co. will join the effort in-store, providing retailers with tools and POS materials to complement the school program.

Some growers are developing their own healthy-eating campaigns. Oneonta Starr is promoting its applesnaQ and pearsnaQ products with the catchphrase “Eat + Play the Healthy Way.” “The campaign is geared towards encouraging a healthy lifestyle for the whole family while having fun doing it,” says Bruce Turner, national sales representative. “The demand for POS materials is incredible and our customers have seen sales growth in both categories by using the materials.”

More growers are developing POS materials geared towards informing the consumer of products’ characteristics, health benefits and usage ideas. To take it up a notch, some growers team with retailers to create custom programs to target a specific product or shopper demographic. In the case of the Pear Bureau Northwest, it encourages consumers to try new varieties of pears that they may not have known existed before.

There are about ten pear varieties grown in the Pacific Northwest, each with its own color, flavor, shape and texture, says Kevin Moffitt, president and CEO of the Milwaukie, Ore.-based organization. “Most consumers are not familiar with about eight of them. So there are plenty of opportunities to introduce shoppers to pears that are in fact heirloom varieties but still seem ‘new’ to consumers.”

Another product jumping into more shopping carts as of late is cherries. Their health benefits have put them back on shopper’s grocery lists and made them a strong impulse buy. Demand has gone up so much that Columbia Marketing International (CMI), based in Wenatchee, Wash., is launching a new packing line at its Double Diamond facility. Built to expand in size, it will allow the company to handle more tonnage as demand and production continues to increase, and it features a cold chain facility.

From the ground up

The Grown in Idaho icon is one of the most recognized brand images in the world, according to industry observers. Idaho potatoes are eaten worldwide and the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) is trucking ahead at full speed to share its quality product across the country—literally.

The Great Big Idaho Potato Truck is in the middle of its seven-month Famous Idaho Potato Tour. Pulling a 28-foot-long, 6-ton spud, the tractor-trailer is making appearances at local retailers and other community spots. The Tater Team, which includes the IPC’s ambassadors who entertain the crowds with music and performances, receives a phenomenal response from the crowds, says Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail/international for the IPC. “Everywhere we go we get all sorts of press from local media, TV, radio, bloggers and just people swarming the store. Retailers are creating special ads for their chains and one store even sold a full load of potatoes in one day as a result.” The trip is in celebration of the IPC’s 75th anniversary and is promoting the Meals with Wheels charity to which the IPC made a $100,000 donation.

The Great Big Idaho Potato is not the only spud on tour this summer. Potandon Produce is also on the road, touring the Midwest with Johnny’s Seasonings. The Johnny’s Be Good Tour took off in May spreading the word about Klondike Brand potatoes and Johnny’s Seasoning Salt. The tour is expected to reach somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 consumers at in-store events, fairs and festivals. “Retailers should expect to see more of the cutting edge promotions directed at the consumers that they are accustomed to seeing from us,” says Barbara Keckler, marketing supervisor for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Potandon.

The potato growers are not the only ones creating cutting-edge promotions. The Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee (IEOOC) is preparing for its “biggest promotions ever,” says Sherise Jones, marketing director.

The IEOOC has always given attention to the “buy local” trend, and this year the Parma, Idaho-based committee is teaming up with Weber Grills USA to promote the message. “This alliance will be great for retailers, complete with in-store sweepstakes, special POS materials and a chance for retailers to receive free Weber grills,” Jones says. The campaign will also emphasize tailgating and home-gating during the football season. This follows the committee’s successful All-American Winners campaign that gave consumers a look at the local farmers, and will still be shown.

Fresh catch

Sustainability and consumer communication is guiding the Northwest seafood industry. Retailers are demanding independent, third party certification to meet consumers’ expectations. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), based in Juneau, Alaska, is providing it.

“We’ve helped many Alaskan fisheries meet the criteria of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, through the FAO-Based Responsible Fisheries Management certification program,” say Larry Andrews, ASMI’s retail marketing director. The FAO Code & Guidelines were created with input from international governments, fishery scientists and conservationists, and so far covers Alaska Salmon, Alaska Halibut, Alaska Black Cod/Sablefish and Alaska Pollock.

“Our certification is only bestowed on those fisheries that have fully met the responsible management criteria,” he adds. “Certification is not an end, but rather just one part of the process that ensures our fishery stocks remain healthy for the long term and an independent verification of past success. Within the fisheries, ongoing improvements are always being pursued as new information, technology and scientific knowledge becomes available.”

Observers agree that while sustainability and tracing efforts have been a priority for the seafood industry, especially Northwest fisheries, consumers are pushing it further. 

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