By Jeff Phelps, University Advancement and External Affairs
OKANOGAN – Third generation orchardist John Butler refers to himself as “just a farmer.” But the growth in the past decade of his $1 million per year fruit processing company qualifies him also as a successful businessman.
“With the help of the SBDC (WSU Small Business Development Centers), we have doubled our business (American Produce Express) in the last three years,” Butler said.
“American Produce has made a difference in the local economy,” said SBDC business adviser Lew Blakeney. “The SBDC is pleased to have had a hand in this success.”
Help with development, distribution
Butler first approached the SBDC in the late 1990s, when the profit margin on his apples was so low that he was trucking the fruit to Montana and Arizona to find additional markets.
“The banks would not loan us the money needed to finance the trips,” he said. “With the help of our SBDC representative, we were able to secure an SBA-guaranteed bank loan to cover our transportation costs and turn a profit on the trips.”
By 2002, Butler saw the processed fruit market as a potential niche. He started experimenting with slicing apples and building his business. He again turned to the SBDC.
“Lew advised us as we developed our product line and manufacturing methods,” Butler said, recalling that they created and modified equipment piece by piece in a machine shop.
Focus on schools
With other, larger companies competing for the sliced apple market, American Produce Express focused its efforts on producing a consistently high quality product and delivering directly to the customer – school districts in particular.
“The Kent School District liked our product and eventually became our biggest customer,” Butler said. A map on his office wall identifies the 60-plus districts throughout the state that carry his products. Nearby, a plaque from the Washington School Nutrition Association confirms the company’s “Friends of Child Nutrition” status.
Supporting the community and staying environmentally friendly are priorities for American Produce Express.
“We are working with Career Path Services locally to place special needs individuals in our operation,” Butler said. The company directs excess inventory to the area food bank, with byproducts and waste going to nearby feedlots.
“Recyclable boxes are next on our list,” he said.
So is continued growth.
“We are looking at installing additional equipment and possibly adding a second shift to our processing line,” he said.
The plant can produce more than 100,000 pounds of fruit per month. During the school year, 15 employees are on staff; a limited summer operation supplies camps and others. In addition to apples, the operation distributes oranges, pears, grapes and nectarines.
“John has persevered in a difficult economy through hard work and ingenuity,” said Blakeney.
He also has continued to operate the family’s 30 acre homestead orchard. After all, he’s just a farmer.
The Washington SBDC is a cooperative effort between Washington State
University, community colleges, economic development organizations and
the U.S. Small Business Administration. For more information, visit www.wsbdc.org.