Mar 18, 2019Riveridge selling half of Michigan’s fresh apples
One out of every two Michigan apples will be marketed and sold by a single company, after Riveridge Produce Marketing’s purchase of Jack Brown Produce’s brand and fresh-pack sales operation.
Both companies are based in Sparta, Michigan, in the middle of the Fruit Ridge area that’s historically used for growing tree fruit because of its elevation, nearness to Lake Michigan and soil. A total of seven salespeople from the two companies are now working for a single firm, said Riveridge President Don Armock.
Bigger and better
He said the consolidation would allow Michigan apples to better compete with other heavy-hitting consolidated players in the North American market.
“As shippers, we’re competing against firms who sell 20 million cartons in a season – these are individual firms,” Armock said.
“The state of Michigan has been selling 10 million cartons a year, in total.”
He said his company has previously sold about 37 percent of Michigan’s fresh apple crop. Together, the combined companies will market and ship 50 percent of the fresh Michigan apple crop, according to Riveridge. Michigan produces between 8-11 million 40-pound boxes a year, so half of that number would be 4-5.5 million boxes.
“What this does, is, from a grower perspective, it allows us to have more market strength,” Armock said. “Basically, there are so many logistical things that this takes care of. If you’re operating on a relatively smaller scale, it’s hard to take on certain business, because you just don’t generate enough volume of desired sides or grades to cover the customers’ orders. And there are economies of scale that also come into play. Now, all of a sudden, there are business software packages that we buy in order to service customers, and we spread that cost. There are food safety training issues, cleaning crew issues, manager training issues that all benefit from scale because we’re doing this collectively.”
Armock said Riveridge’s highly-trained staff now can work between the packinghouses and make sure growers are on the same page for issues such as food safety.
“There’s a myriad of things that all come together when you’re bigger,” he said.
Armock said Riveridge has staff with experience in consumer-packaged goods and category management with the ability to analyze data for the benefit of customers and growers. Riveridge has a couple of new varieties that the company is close to taking to market after having invested in professional taste panels and consumer focus groups of apple varieties that are in development.
“It’s pretty amazing the things you learn,” Armock said. “So often we as growers say, ‘This is just a great eating experience and a real winner!’ It takes on a life of its own. Since we’re in the selling business we should know what the hell we’re doing, right?
Ultimately, the consumer is the boss and the failures out there are often the result of not paying attention to what they ultimately are going to buy.”
Serves growers, customers
Jack Brown Produce President John Schaefer said the shareholder-owned corporation represents about 75 growers in west Michigan from Charlevoix to the state border with Indiana.
“Both Jack Brown Produce and Riveridge Produce have complementary grower communities making this union a natural fit,” Schafer said. “We each have modern packing plants and growers invested in the future, utilizing the latest growing techniques and moving forward on the varieties and strains for today’s consumer preferences.”
Jack Brown Produce was formed by a group of growers who joined in the 1950s, Armock said. While Riveridge has essentially purchased its sales office, Jack Brown growers still own its packing plant and storage facilities, Armock said, because it’s necessary for them to be able to service their crop. Seven other Michigan facilities pack for Riveridge Produce. A large
number of packinghouses provide an opportunity for growers to be paired with the right customer for their fruit, based on apple variety, size and pack type.
In addition to selling year-round for Michigan growers, Riveridge also works with growers in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri and Minnesota on a seasonal basis, Armock said. The apples will be sold under a variety of brands, including Apple Ridge, Riveridge and store brands.
“Depending on what the customer desires, that’s what we’re going to deliver,” Armock said. “We’re a very customer- and-
grower-centric company. We know that our job is to match up the fruit with the customer. It’s kind of a two-way street. Growers need to know what it is the market is looking for and the market needs to know what’s available and where we’re heading.”
Riveridge Produce Marketing’s packing operation for fresh apples. Photos: Riveridge