Opinion: When Bigger’s Not Better

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David Eddy

You’ve probably heard the opposite of the phrase in the above headline a million times. And most of the time it’s probably true, as is its corollary: You can’t have too much of a good thing. But sometimes it’s just not true that bigger is better, or more is better. Reminds me of a baseball story in which a hitter returns to the dugout after facing the great fastballer Nolan Ryan. The batter was shaking his head after feebly striking out when a teammate said he thought the batter liked to hit fastballs. “Yeah, I like ice cream too,” the hitter replies, “but I don’t like to eat a gallon at one time.”

There’s a business lesson there for virtually everyone, but especially those who profit so handsomely from higher quality products, as do fruit growers. I was reminded of that in December when I was up in the Great Northwest for the Washington State Horticultural Association’s 108th annual meeting. The moderator of a panel on business planning, Dale Foreman, a former chairman of USApple, mentioned a book that came out this past year, “The Fish That Ate The Whale.” (Foreman, incidentally, is a pretty interesting guy who was a lawyer and politician who later saw the error of his ways and became an apple grower.)

The book is about the banana industry, and about how a poor immigrant by the name of Samuel Zemurray came to control 65% of the bananas eaten in the U.S. Foreman said that considering the average apple grower is 61 years old, and what with all the consolidation in the industry, a natural question emerges: “Which apple grower will do that?”

Quality Tops All

Foreman also noted that Zemurray said there were three keys to success, and one of them was diversification. Interestingly enough, the growers on the panel did not agree. David Douglas, the outgoing president of the association, said diversification
is fine but only if done well. In other words, only diversify into areas you can master. Douglas noted that his company, Douglas Fruit of Pasco, WA, tried to diversify into organic apples in 2007. It didn’t last. “We found out we weren’t the greatest organic apple growers,” he concluded.

Another panelist, West Mathison of Stemilt Growers, made a couple of provocative comments on the topic you may have already seen if you subscribe to my Twitter feed. First, he announced that as of that very day, Stemilt was out of the blueberry business. In fact, Stemilt sold more fruit in 2005 than they do today. He noted that they used to import pears and cherries, but not anymore. Likewise with pears out of California.

Getting big is overblown because in the fruit business, you’re only as good as your weakest link. If Stemilt got much bigger, it might not be able to deliver consistently top quality, which, in the end, is their stock and trade. “If we don’t tilt up another CA storage in the next six years it would be a good thing,” Mathison concluded.

Amen to that. I buy a lot of fruit, but because of the nature of modern life, my wife buys most because she does most of the grocery shopping. If your farm’s name is associated with a poor eating experience, you’ll get a little black mark next to your name in her mind. I saw it happen with some of the peach farms here in California, and I don’t have to tell you what happened to them. Please don’t grow at the expense of quality.

David Eddy is editor of American/Western Fruit Grower, a Meister Media Worldwide publication.
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