Workers pack gift baskets Wednesday morning at Harry & David in Medford. - Mail Tribune / Julia Moore

Harry & David gears up for good year

Months of preparation and projections are put to the test annually at Harry & David.

Sometimes the pace picks up in August, sometimes operations don't gain steam until after Labor Day.

The best-laid plans in the agricultural world, however, can quickly be reduced to an exercise in futility. Thus, an intricate dance takes place as the vertically integrated gourmet food and gift company begins mixing between 6,000 and 8,000 seasonal workers into operations in the Rogue Valley, Eugene and Ohio.

With one eye on the sky and the other on the business at hand, Orchard Director Matt Borman launched harvest operations Wednesday in Bear Creek Orchards' 1,600-plus acres of Comice and Bosc pears.

First to be picked are Comice, marketed as Harry & David's signature Royal Riviera pears, with Bosc following next month.

"The biggest challenge for us this year is that it broke with the trend of later and later seasons," Borman said. "Last year, we didn't start until Sept. 3, but we're ready to go and have to deliver quickly because (pear) maturity is advancing faster than normal."

A small cadre of pickers was in place following a peach harvest that ran 10 to 12 days earlier than normal, but the majority of the 330 orchard workers coming from Arizona and California's San Joaquin Valley won't arrive until Friday and Sunday.

This is Borman's 14th harvest. He's expecting a Comice yield of 16,500 tons, up from 13,800 last year. During his tenure he's seen swings of as many as 3,000 tons in one year and harvests of more than 18,000 tons to as low as 12,400 — thanks to frost in 2010.

"We had three of our orchards kissed by hail at one point this year and the forecast is still fairly ugly for the next couple of days," he said. "I won't speak to how that might end up."

When it comes to planning, the idea is to handle whatever comes Harry & David's way — good, great, bad or worse.

"From the start of pear harvest, there are a lot of moving parts and we've got to be sure everything is orchestrated," said Tom Forsythe, senior vice president of production and orchards. "It's the culmination of planning throughout the year and we focus heavily on ensuring our processes are in sync."

Should storms unleash hail or curtains of rain, there is a plan.

"That would have a significant impact on next week, but we have contingency plans mapped out," Forsythe said. "The velocity of the harvest impacts how many pears we can run (through the packing house) next week, and that impacts how many folks we hire. How many units go into the warehouse determines how many forklift drivers we need, and so on."

Department heads gather right after Christmas to sum up the past year and chart the course for the next. Things went well enough during fall 2012, Forsythe said, that there was no need for major overhauls.

"We want to repeat a lot of what we did," he said.

Harry & David produced $369.33 million in revenue during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012. Chief Executive Officer Craig Johnson said final figures for fiscal 2013 are expected to be released the third week of September. During the all-important second-quarter holiday season in 2012, Harry & David reported revenue of $254.8 million, up from $244.3 million a year earlier.

"The tweaks are going to be subtle," Forsythe said. "Last year, we may have brought in 'X' number of employees one week and a few more or less the next week."

Gift production lines are scheduled into December.

"If we have to make adjustments based on the velocity of harvest, we have the ability to reschedule," he said.

Over time, seasonal employees have developed broader skills.

A seasonal worker may toil in the candy kitchen from March until late summer, then move to the packing house, join the gift assembly line in the fall and help out in distribution or fulfillment units in December.

"When they come back the next year, they will have a much broader skill set," Forsythe said.

About three in five seasonal workers return the next year, said Pam Turay, senior vice president for human resources.

"We have to have a wide funnel to make sure we have a sustainable pipeline (of employees) well into the future," Turay said. "We compete with everything from other growers, to landscapers, retail, hospitality, grocery and even fighting fires this time of year."

Hiring goals are reviewed week to week, she said. "We want to anticipate, rather than react. We have a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. If things are on course, then we follow Plan A. If we need to hire more quickly, we know what levers to pull to get more people in the system, screened, processed, on board and trained."

Although outlying call centers won't begin pulling seasonal leaders until September and ramping up until October, Turay said her department is cranking on all cylinders.

"From our perspective," she said, "we consider ourselves fully in season based on current forecasts."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness,

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