Fresh-cut Helps Grower Broaden Marketing Options

When Clyde Bybee began farming in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills in 1976, many wondered if he and the entrepreneurs involved in Sunheaven Farms would survive more than a couple years. Millions of dollars in financing were lined up to install a complex pivot irrigation system involving a pumping station on the Columbia River and more than 10 miles of feeder pipe and booster stations just to bring water to the edge of the first farm. It was another 14 miles to the most distant pivot.

Bybee and five other family heads – Brent Schulties, Brent Hartley, Loren Munn, Duane Munn and Robert Munn – were all Nyssa, Ore., transplants. Their vision was to bring water to what had been a dryland wheat area. Even though the land would soon be producing bumper crops of potatoes, onions, sweet corn and other crops, it was a bold and risky gamble. Power costs were high, and additional rate hikes were predicted. On top of that, the market history, in terms of financial rewards, was up and down for virtually all the crops that would be grown.

Agricultural Development

At the time, the Sunheaven Farms venture was the largest and most expensive pivot irrigation development in Washington state. Each family owned its own ground and operated independently but shared a common irrigation system, dividing the cost of pivot irrigation systems, water, power and maintenance evenly. Bybee began with approximately 1,800 acres; the other families were similarly positioned.

Over the past nearly three decades, the Bybee family has demonstrated an ability to adapt and move forward.

Today, Clyde Bybee and his son, Neal, operate a growing network of businesses – Bybee Produce, a fresh-pack facility on their farm; Bybee Fresh Cut Foods, a value-added facility in Pasco, Wash.; and Bybee Foods, a full-line IQF (individually quick frozen) plant in Grandview, Wash.

“Our goal is to market everything we raise,” Clyde said. “We want to control, as much as we can, our own destiny. We want to do our own growing, packing, processing and marketing.”

A major step forward in that direction came with the purchase in 2001 of Agri-Pak, a 48,000-square-foot fresh-cut onion processing facility. Now operating as Bybee Fresh Cut Foods, the plant has been completely renovated and upgraded. Rick Perez, a former ConAgra-Lamb Weston professional, was hired last fall as general manager, and Bob Swartwout, a former Fresh Express Foodservice national accounts manager, subsequently came on board as national sales director.

The major products offered today through the fresh-cut facility are whole-peeled, sliced and diced onions as well as onion strips and rings, Perez said. The onions are grown on Bybee Farms, which produces an average of 1,500 to 1,600 acres of onions each year. About half of the family’s onions are exported overseas, most to Pacific Rim customers. Bybee Produce also ships a large volume of its onion crop to other customers throughout the United States.

Boosting Onion Product Output

“During the coming year, we’re looking at substantially increasing our total plant output at the fresh-cut facility,” Perez said.

The Bybee Fresh Cut facility provides a full line of whole and whole-peeled onions to the fresh-cut and food manufacturing trade throughout North America, Swartwout said. Yellow, red and white varieties are shipped in a range of bulk containers according to customer needs. Organic onions also are available. The new fresh-cut products line will be for Northwest regional food manufacturing and distribution customers within a 300- to 400-mile radius of the Tri-Cities.

“We’re even looking at possibly getting into fresh-cut potatoes somewhere down the trail,” Swartwout said.

While the Bybees no longer grow potatoes on their farm, they did so for many years. In fact, there once was up to 3,500 acres of potatoes on Sunheaven Farms, but the crop was eventually replaced with sugar beets. Bybee was successful in bringing a sugar beet contract back to Washington, and it offered greater potential financial remuneration. With the fresh-cut facility looking for a broader array of commodity possibilities, potatoes could eventually return to the family’s crop portfolio.

“There are plenty of potatoes grown in Washington already, so availability is not an issue,” Bybee said. “If we decide to move in that direction and the sales take off, we’ll probably grow potatoes again.”

Bybee Fresh Cut Foods already has a list of regional customers who have expressed interest in adding pre-cut bell peppers, carrots and celery to their shopping lists, Perez said.

“A lot of customers that buy fresh-cut and whole peeled onions also buy fresh produce, frozen vegetables and ingredients for soups and other things,” Swartwout said. “In putting together a vertically-integrated group of companies, the Bybees have been visionary in diversifying the number of ways they can market the products coming off of their farm. They are able to piggyback services and become a one-stop shopping mall, of sorts, for produce. Why deal with multiple vendors when you can meet all of your needs with one?”

Using high-tech, custom-designed equipment, the Bybees can package their onion and other products according to customer needs. New lines have been added to slice and dice peppers, squash, carrots, celery and other hard vegetables. The plant has the capability to package everything from 5-pound bags to 1,800-pound totes.

Food Safety

Bybee Fresh Cut Foods recently scored a 97 on its annual third-party audit. Food security, quality assurance and HACCP programs are all in place, Perez said. Micro testing is conducted in-house with the exception of checking for live pathogens, which is done off-site.

“Certificates of analysis are provided to all customers requesting them,” Perez said. “We don’t have to send our samples outside to supply such reports.”

The fresh-cut plant’s raw produce room is separate from the floor where the actual processing takes place. Two large coolers are available to store raw product separately. Both raw coolers are equipped with high-volume blow-walls that circulate chilled air constantly through product prior to processing. There are two separate processing rooms, where the actual cutting takes place, Perez said. All finished product is stored in separate coolers from raw supplies.

“Our loading docks come out of our coolers so that finished product is never loaded outside of a cold room,” he said. “Everything is loaded inside, helping preserve the cold chain.”

Another plus is the facility’s metal detection systems. All finished product is run through the detection equipment prior to any primary packaging, reducing the risks and clumsiness of moving boxes through metal detection equipment.

“What impresses me with everything the Bybees have done, whether we are talking about Bybee Farms, Bybee Produce, Bybee Fresh Cut Foods or Bybee Foods, is everything is first class,” Swartwout said. “The farm’s storage sheds – the Bybees can store up to 45,000 tons of onions – are all temperature and climate controlled. The fresh-pack facility recently installed a new Compac color sorter sizing line that greatly improves its ability to deliver to exact customer specifications. The fresh-cut facility includes custom-made lines and other state-of-the-art equipment that help deliver a high quality product.”

The latest addition to the vertical mix is the family’s new frozen food facility in Grandview, Wash. It will focus on providing customers with quick frozen vegetable products. Bybee Fresh Cut Foods will serve as a support facility, supplying diced onions and other ingredients, as needed.

While Clyde Bybee continues to manage day-to-day overall operations in the family conglomerate, his son, Neal, also is a key player and is heavily involved. Clyde and his wife, Gay, have two other sons: Vance, a judge in Salem, Ore., and Scott, a truck driver, who also helps out on occasion on the farm.

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