Duckwall Fruit marks 100 years in business
By Drew Myron
As leader of one of the largest fruit packing companies in Hood River, Fred Duckwall has every reason to crow. But he doesn’t want to talk about his success. Instead, he shuffles quietly across the factory, talking softly and assessing pears.
“The work is the most important thing,” says Fred, 77.
Modesty, it seems, is a Duckwall mark that has carried this family business from humble orchard to international success.
Duckwall Fruit is a family company celebrating 100 years. The company has grown from a small operation in the middle of an orchard to a company shipping more than 2 million cartons of pears annually to worldwide markets.
With its signature bufflehead duck label, Duckwall is an established brand providing pears to Safeway, Costco and other domestic grocers, with more
than a third of its business in exports to the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, India, Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Peru, Fiji, the Dominican Republic, Canada and Mexico.
Fred’s father, John, established the company in 1919. A banker in Indianapolis, John moved to Oregon and planted a few fruit trees in the Hood River Valley. He sent some of his fruit to his family in Indianapolis.
When neighboring farmers heard of John’s profits, they asked him to pack and sell theirs, too—and a business was born.
As sales grew, John decided to sell his orchard and pack only fruit from other growers.
In 1926, John set up his first office in Hood River. A few years later, he traveled to Europe to establish export markets. By 1958, with business booming, operations moved to Odell, where they remain today.
When John retired, his son Dick— Fred’s brother—took the lead. In 1971, Duckwall merged with Pooley Fruit Co. and nearly doubled the size of the company. For name recognition, the Duckwall moniker remained intact.
Overwhelmed, Dick called Fred for help. Though he held a business degree from Oregon State University and had served as a U.S. Army officer in Germany, Fred joined the family business as a trainee, ordering supplies and overseeing quality control. He grew to know every aspect of the Duckwall business.
“I still have my forklift license,” he says, proudly.
When Dick retired in 1992, Fred was named president. He is now CEO.
Duckwall has always had a family focus, and the emphasis continues as the third and fourth generations manage dayto- day operations. Fred’s son Nathan, a former building contractor, works as special projects and maintenance manager. Fred’s daughter, Sara, is senior accountant. His great-nephew, Ed Weathers, is president and sales manager.
Other members of the management team are Staci Coburn, Kathy Nishimoto, Wade Root and Craig Mallon.
“This company is a living legacy that we’re a part of,” Sara says. “I hope our heirs will take pride and ownership as Grandpa John did. It’s important they know it didn’t start with us.”
The official Oregon state fruit is the pear, and Hood River County is the world’s leading producer of anjou, a short-necked winter pear.
There are more than 250 pear orchards in Hood River County. While many are small family farms, they account for about two-thirds of the state’s pears.
Much of the harvest is shipped out fresh or placed in cold storage for distribution and sale throughout the year. Only about 2% of Oregon pears are
consumed in the U.S., according to the Pear Bureau.
Duckwall packages pears grown by 75 orchardists from more than 100 area farms.
As it celebrates a century, business is booming. Ten years ago, the company packed 1.5 million pears annually. Now it handles more than 2 million pieces of fruit each year.
“Farmers are better and getting better yield,” says Ed, who credits the substantial growth to enhanced technology and farming practices.
With a sole focus on pears, Duckwall employs 300 people at the peak of the season and about 50 year-round. Packing begins in mid-August. The last of the winter pears are shipped by late May or early June.
“We respect and appreciate our employees,” says Fred, who notes that many of their packers have worked at the company for 25 to 30 years. “We’ve got incredible employees.”
“I’ve known Fred for 30 years, and he’s always had a steady hand when it comes to business and community,” says Mike Doke, executive director of Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers—the consortium representing more than 400 fruit growers and 20 packing houses in Hood River and Wasco counties. “Fred is highly regarded in the fruit industry. People listen to him because of his experience.”
Though not one to boast, Fred does offer a tip. A good business, he says, operates like three legs of a stool: customers, growers and employees.
“Our goal is to provide competitive return for our growers so they are profitable and successful, growing quality fruit for us to pack and ship,” he says. “We have a totally open atmosphere here. Growers can come in, sit down and talk to us. It’s a nice family way to do business.”