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J.C. Watson Company Inc.
Taking Sizing and Grading to a New Level

Onion World
September/October 2006

Jon Watson of J.C. Watson Company Inc., Parma, Idaho, has long recognized that to aggressively compete in today’s competitive marketing environment, it is important to search out and adapt new technology.

Approximately six years ago, he consolidated the company’s packing facilities into one location at Parma and installed a high-tech packing line from Autoline, now a division of Aweta. The new equipment permits the third-generation packer to take onion sizing and color sorting to a new level.

“We’re offering our customers two sizes of mediums, two sizes of jumbos, a colossal and a supercolossal,” Watson explains. “Every single onion is weighed, and the accuracy is within three to four grams. The onions move through 17 different drops. Some of our onions are sold by count. We’re doing a lot of business with Outback Steakhouse.”
The sophisticated color sorting technology enables the packer to turn out uniform packs in terms of both color and size. Any off-grade materials are sorted out and sent to area processors for the production of onion rings and other value-added onion products.

“While appearance is not such a big factor to them, these varieties have been selected because they are very high in single centers,” he says. “They are ideal for our processor customers.”

Acquired Holiday Packing
While J.C. Watson Co. is not the largest onion packing operation in the Treasure Valley, it is among the top third. The company continues to grow and recently acquired the assets of Holiday Packing, previously owned by Phil Batt, in the Wilder, Idaho area. Batt retired.

“One of the biggest assets of Holiday Packing was its strong grower base,” Watson says. “He had a great working relationship with his growers, and we intend to do what we can to retain that relationship. Also acquired in the deal were a very nice storage facility and a small packing line. The packing line likely will not be used as the intent is to consolidate all local packing operations at our Parma plant. We will convert all of these storages to computerized, air-controlled systems with drying capability. This allows us to monitor some 25 storages 24/7 from one location.”

With the latest acquisition, the company expects to pack 1,800 to 2,000 loads during the coming season. J.C. Watson also has partnerships in South Texas, California and New Mexico enabling the company to supply its customer base12 months out of the year.

“Typically, we wrap up our shipping operations here around the first of April,” Watson explains. “We’ll then shift to Texas, and then to southern California and on to northern California. We also do some packing in New Mexico.”

To insure that its markets are properly served, J.C. Watson Co. maintains a strong truck procurement department.

“Anymore, it’s not enough to sell an onion. You’ve got to sell an onion with wheels,” the company president stresses. “Within two or three weeks, we may be loading the tail end of our cold storage crop out of Idaho-Oregon and going right into Texas. Soon after, we’ll start in southern California. The traffic end of things is very critical to get the onions there. It’s not enough to sell them; you have to get them to their doorstep.”

On the farming side, J.C. Watson Co. has extensive land holdings but also farms in partnership and joint venturing relationships with area growers. Including latest acquisition, approximately 1,000 acres of onions will be involved this year. Overall farming operations are double that size.

“We are involved with onion growing operations in Payette and Canyon counties in Idaho, as well as across the river in Malheur County, Ore.,” Watson says. “Our acreage stretches all of the way down to Owyhee County, which includes the Marsing area in Idaho.”

Prior to the recent Holiday Pack acquisition, Watson acquired the storage facilities of Bowman Produce in Marsing several years back. Today, the company has a strong grower base in Marsing, Homedale and Wilder as well as Parma, Nyssa and Fruitland.

Drip Irrigation Benefits
A high percentage of the company’s onion crop is under drip irrigation, Watson says. The use of drip has greatly improved the ability to manage the crop during periods of stress, brought on by excessive heat or insect pressure, for example.

“ We’ve also been able to grow onions on new ground with no previous history of growing onions,” Watson says. “Drip irrigation can be used on land that is unsuitable for gravity irrigation. Most of the onions we’re growing today are under drip, and some of the growers that we are partnering with are slowly getting into drip.”

All of the onions marketed through J.C. Watson are Primus certified as following good agricultural practices (GAP). Primus is a widely recognized, third-party certification agency.
“In addition to the GAP aspect, we have full traceability as well as recall ability right to the field and particular variety,” the company president notes. “The best way we’ve found to comply with all of the new regulations coming on is to already be doing it – and improving as you go along.”

The Treasure Valley crop, as a whole, is a “week to 10 days later than normal” in maturing, Watson says. Growers were challenged with an exceptionally wet spring, forcing some to seed their crops later than normal. The harvest is expected to begin in late August or around the first week in September.

J.C. Watson Company can trace its roots back to James Christopher (J.C.) Watson, who came to the area from Iowa in 1912. His first land purchase was two five-acre tracks used to grow apples. Later, the family moved to Parma, where they set up a packing facility to market soft fruit and, eventually, potatoes. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that they began handling onions (some of the first grown in the Treasure Valley). Onions prospered during the 1930s and ‘40s, as did their business.

In the late 1950s, James F. Watson, Jon’s father, took over the business management from his father. At that time, iceberg head lettuce and pod peas were widely grown in the Treasure Valley. Later, as production shifted to the Salinas Valley in California, Treasure Valley production dwindled and then died. In their stead, onions became the major alternative crop.

After finishing a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Idaho in 1973, Jon Watson joined his father in the business. His grandfather died the year he was born. Today, Jon heads a multimillion dollar business that is considered one of the premier onion enterprises in the Treasure Valley. The company is widely recognized for its ability to adapt and change.

With red onions growing in popularity in the foodservice industry, approximately 15 percent of J.C. Watson Company’s onions today are reds. Customer preferred varieties account for virtually 100 percent of their red production. Storages that once were used to store apples have since been equipped with forced air and refrigeration systems to handle the company’s red onions.

While the largest percentage of their onion crop is yellows, the company also handles a small percentage of white varieties.

“Using heat and refrigeration, we started a program conditioning whites, but it has been the red segment of the business that has grown most in the foodservice area over these last three or four years,” Watson says.

“Soo” and “Watson Brand” Labels
The company’s main onion label is “Soo,” an identify he traces back to his grandfather, J.C. Watson. The “Soo” is believed to have come from Sioux Indians and Soo Lines Railroad, part of his early Iowa background. A new label, “Watson Brand, four generations of family pride,” has more recently been introduced and is expected to do well.
As for the future, is their another generation of Watsons waiting in the wings to take over management of the business?

“I have a son, James Bradley Watson, who recently graduated from college and is going to work outside of the business for a year or two before deciding whether to come back,” Watson says. “Hopefully, this will happen.”

Emily, a daughter named after her great grandmother, J.C.’s wife, has two more years of college left before any decisions whether to come back will be made.

© 2006 Columbia Publishing

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