HOOD RIVER, Ore. — John C. Duckwall came to Oregon from Indianapolis in 1910 with wanderlust in his blood and a hint that farmers were making good money growing fruit in the Hood River Valley.
Four generations later, Duckwall Fruit remains a pillar of the Mid-Columbia pear industry, packing and shipping nearly one-third of the region’s crop.
The company celebrated its 100-year anniversary in July, with members of the Duckwall family reflecting on past successes while focusing on future challenges in the industry — such as increasing automation in the face of continuing labor shortages.
Duckwall Fruit is led by CEO Fred Duckwall, son of founder John Duckwall; Sara Duckwall, Fred’s daughter and John’s granddaughter; Nathan Duckwall, Fred’s son and John’s grandson; and Ed Weathers, John’s great-grandson.
Weathers, who took over as president and sales manager of Duckwall Fruit on May 1, said the company’s centennial was a proud moment for everyone from the board room to the packing house.
“It’s very fulfilling to know that we at this table and our employees have been such a part of a longstanding, successful operation,” Weathers said during a recent interview with Fred, Sara and Nathan Duckwall. “A hundred years is really amazing when you think about it.”
The legacy goes back to John Duckwall, who worked as a banker in Indianapolis before moving to Hood River, where he planted 7 acres of apple trees.
John began shipping apples back to Indianapolis in 1919, where his brother, William St. Clair, sold the fruit through a local dealer. Returns were so good that John’s neighbors quickly took notice, and asked to be included in next year’s shipment.
“It just evolved from that point, growing with additional neighbors,” Fred Duckwall said. “And we continue to be in business today.”
Duckwall Fruit established its first office in 1926 in Hood River. The facilities moved to nearby Odell, Ore., in 1958. By 1971, Duckwall Fruit merged with Pooley Fruit Co. to form Duckwall-Pooley Fruit Co., operating under the name Duckwall Fruit.
The company now exclusively handles pears from about 70 different Oregon growers. On average, Duckwall Fruit packs 2.25 million, 44-pound boxes annually. Figures for 2018 show the company packed approximately 2.2 million boxes, or roughly 31% of the total Mid-Columbia harvest.
About 60% is sold domestically, and 40% is exported to countries in Central and South America and across the world. That kind of market diversification has been key to the long-lasting success of Duckwall Fruit, Weathers said.
“We have a vast network of retail and wholesale and even broker accounts throughout the U.S., and likewise around the world,” he said.
New technology is also driving future growth at Duckwall Fruit, with the advent of controlled atmosphere storage, allowing the company to market and sell pears for nearly 11 months a year.
Nathan Duckwall, special projects and maintenance manager, said that controlled atmosphere means they can keep oxygen levels at below 1%, which in turn stops the ripening process and keeps pears fresh for up to eight months after harvest.
“We basically put the pear to sleep,” Nathan Duckwall said. “It makes the pears respirate less, and allows for a longer life.”
The company also plans to install a new optical sorter by 2020, which uses computerized cameras instead of humans to sort pears by grade and size. Optical sorters are widely used in food processing, but are just now being adapted to the unique shape and durability of pears.
A similar line was launched last year at another Hood River-based pear co-op, Diamond Fruit Growers, costing $7.5 million and manufactured in Europe.
Weathers said the investment is based on a shrinking labor pool across the industry. Duckwall Fruit has over 300 seasonal workers at peak season, though Weathers said they have not been able to run the production facility at full capacity for the last 2 to 4 years based on available labor.
“The driving force is the lack of labor supply,” he said.
Despite these challenges, Weathers said Duckwall Fruit is seeing nice year-to-year increases in sales and is working to increase demand for fresh pears. He and all the company’s leaders credited the growers and employees for their success.
“Individually, it’s our aim to continue to try to deliver a better piece of fruit to our customers every day,” Weathers said.