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Hi-Quality closes packing shed

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For nearly 60 years, growers have relied on Hi-Quality Packing to store, market and ship the apples, peaches, pears and apricots grown in the area.

But the business's new owners, Joe and Pam Davis, have decided to drop packing and focus on retail sales through the Laughing Goat Farmer's Market. At the same time, Davis and others of similar mindset are dedicating their resources to building an infrastructure to feed and provide shelter for as many people as possible in the wake of a catastrophic event. There's a flurry of activity at 215 Silver Street, but it no longer has anything to do with fruit packing.

"Packing is not going to be our business, but selling fruit is," Davis said. "I would love to have the biggest farmer's market on the Western Slope and put my money into advertising it as such."

The decision to drop packing comes in the wake of a hard freeze that all but wiped out local fruit crops in April. "There's not enough fruit to crank up the packing line," said Davis.

So while he's selling wooden bins, packing equipment and even the cooling space in Delta, growers are scrambling to find an outlet for what fruit they do expect to pick.

Four generations of the Williams family have raised fruit in the Cedaredge area, and Dan Williams isn't about to throw in the towel now. He, his wife Connie and son Ty convened a meeting of area growers at the family-owned AppleShed last week -- a meeting that also drew county officials and the executive director of Delta County Economic Development.

"Fortunately or unfortunately, however you want to look at it, a lot of us don't have much fruit, so we have some time to work through this but we need to be making plans," Dan said.

Once a Hi-Quality customer himself, Dan said he decided 20 years ago to go in a different direction. Since then, he's been packing his own apples, and this year he's planning to market his own peaches as well.

For expertise in that area, Dan is relying on Mike Gibson, who was with United Marketing Exchange, formerly based at Hi-Quality, for over 25 years. Gibson, who was present at the meeting, said he has retained the United Marketing Exchange name, as well as the Tom-Tom label for apples.

"We're not going to let Mike leave," Dan said. "He's got years and years of contacts and friendships that he's developed in the industry to market our fruit. He's agreed to help us with our own fruit, and we welcome you to join with us -- to whatever extent that works."

Dan also reported, "Our own personal production is escalating and we're going to have to add some facilities to accommodate our own fruit.Do we make plans for our fruit plus some? We're open to that."

Another alternative is Rogers Mesa Packing Shed, where the focus has been on organic fruit. Plus, the Rogers Mesa facility has never dealt extensively with apples -- that was Hi-Quality's specialty.

Growers can also haul produce to Palisade, where Talbott Farms operates a processing facility. That's where Williams and other growers have been taking their peaches.

But the option that generated the most discussion was a growers' cooperative, with the focus on packing and shipping apples. Delta County is still the largest producer of apples in the state, but production -- even during a good year -- appears to fall short of warranting a full-scale packing shed.
"So we have to get creative," Dan said. He had high praise for Harold Broughton, one of the founders of Hi-Quality Packing, but said even he would recognize the need for change.

"We have a unique opportunity to create a different destiny than what we've been going through the last 20 years," said Dan's son, Ty Williams. "All of us should be open to whatever it takes to get there."

"This county has suffered so much already," said Connie Williams. "We have to work together to figure out some way this industry continues on."

The biggest obstacles to setting up a packing operation were quickly identified as bins and cold storage. There is some cold storage space available, but it's reported to be pricey. The question was posed: Who would be willing to make a financial commitment to a cooperative to secure space, if a suitable price can be negotiated?

Robbie LeValley, Delta County administrator, and Trish Thibodo, DCED executive director, said one source of funding might be a REDI grant. While the program has been phased out, there is some money left for economic development in struggling rural communities. LeValley and Thibodo pledged their efforts to pursuing funding, but said a grant application will only be successful with a solid plan in place and a 50 percent match.

By forming a cooperative, the growers would be better able to address common issues such as labor, food safety, supplies and purchasing contracts with large companies like Kroger or Walmart. "We would have the clout, the leverage we couldn't have individually," Ty said. They could also command top dollar for their product, rather than getting into a competitive situation where they'd be undercutting each other to the point no one makes money.

Taste panels from Gerber Baby Food (one of Mike Gibson's contacts) have proven Delta County fruit tastes better than anyone else's, Ty noted.

"We have a unique product," he said. "Why do we not do a better job of getting a unique price out of it?"

As the discussion turned back in the direction of co-ops Dan cautioned, "We've become more and more independent and that's become more and more important to us ... not to the extent we will rule out a cooperative effort, but it would have to be a pretty special one."

Indeed, all the growers in the room value their independence. To make a co-op work over the long term, they'll have to be willing to work together and stand behind their commitments. Strong leadership/management was also identified as a key factor by peach grower Larry Fuller, who shared his experience with now defunct cooperatives in the Palisade area.

"It sounds to me like the Williamses have made a generous offer to all the growers to run their fruit this year," said Harold Clay, who has an orchard on Rogers Mesa. If Rogers Mesa Fruit is also willing to take on more fruit, there should be no problem handling this year's crop, he observed.

"In the meantime we can talk about co-ops, we can plan for the coming year."

Dan agreed. "We're at a unique point in history to talk about our options ... if the interest is there, let's talk about it."

Growers who want to move forward with exploring some sort of cooperative agreement will meet again June 23 to get down to specifics.

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