Bearing fruit

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Imagine operating a part-time business where people for miles around call in at all hours to place orders, line up early to pick them up, and then beg you to keep going year after year.


That’s the delightful dilemma that’s developed for Carol Dirks, who has been selling Saxton fruit out of her home in Durham for the past eight years.


“The thing about doing this is the satisfaction of providing something that people want and enjoy,” Dirks said. “And we’ve made a lot of friends and increased our horizons a great deal.”


Saxton fruit is grown in the Snake River Valley near Caldwell, Idaho, and trucked to Durham via Cheney, Neb., where the family-owned company has a major distribution center.


Dirks first became acquainted with Saxton when she was just out of college and living in Henderson, Neb., which had a fruit stand close to town.


“We just got accustomed to having their fruit available,” Dirks said. “When (husband) Dwight and I moved around here, we had trouble coming up with places to go to get a hold of the fruit we enjoyed.”


She eventually called the person who had supplied the fruit stand in Henderson and asked whether the company would ship fruit farther south.


“He was excited about bringing fruit to Kansas,” she said. The only other outlet in the state at the time was a fruit market in Hutchinson.


Dirks and her family sold their first boxes in fall 1993. That first season, they moved 75 or 100 boxes each time the truck made a delivery-which is about once every week or two.


“Boy, we thought that was good,” she said. “Now it’s not unusual to have 700 or 800 boxes in each week. Our biggest load of fruit was over 1,000 boxes-that was in peach season.”


Dirks’s clientele comes not only from across Marion County, but also Moundridge, Inman, Halstead, Newton, Emporia, Hesston, Clay Center, Abilene and Lindsborg.


She now has around 900 names on her customer list, but she knows her clientele is even bigger.


“Some people pick up the fruit here, and then it goes out even farther than that,” she said. “Even in Hillsboro there are people who comment, ‘Oh, I sure enjoyed the fruit,’ and I’m thinking I’ve never seen them at my house. Somebody’s bringing it to them.”


The majority of her clients are over 55 years old-the generation that still frequently cans and freezes fruit.


If they can resist eating it first, that is.


“One of the most common comments I hear is from somebody who comes by and picks up a box of peaches and is back the next week and says, ‘Well, I thought I was going to get those in the freezer, but we ate them all so we came back to get another box.’ And it keeps happening.


“It’s a good problem for me,” she said.


Dirks limits her advertising to the Free Press and newspapers in Newton, Abilene, McPherson and Herington. She doesn’t need more. Word-of-mouth has been her best promotional campaign, she said.


So, what’s so special about Saxton fruit?


“They pick tree-ripened fruit,” Dirks said. “It hasn’t sat in storage. They send a quality product and, if (customers) do have any problem with it, it’s guaranteed.”


The fruit season lasts from July through October and even November, depending on the availability of fruit. The season begins with bing cherries, then moves through apricots, peaches, pears, several varieties of plums and apples, and even Idaho potatoes and Spanish onions toward the end.


This year, when a poor spring in Idaho hurt the pollination of bing cherries, Dirks decided not carry the popular item because the limited supply was so expensive.


“(My business) was off to such a slow start, people were wondering if I was still doing it,” she said. “They were starting to panic because they didn’t know what they would do to get their fruit.


“I guess that’s a big motivator to keep going,” she added. “People just enjoy it. Customers become your friends, and you hate to let your friends down.”


And, in turn, those friends turn out in force on the day the Saxton truck arrives-which is usually on a Thursday, although the time can vary.


“Sometimes I have had, literally, two blocks of traffic park here before (the truck) finally shows up,” she said. “I have two or three people direct cars out of the way so we can operate a forklift to get it unloaded. But, as soon as we have one car moved, another one pulls in because they don’t realize we’re trying to get a truck unloaded.”


Ben Goertz, owner of G&R Implement in Durham, usually operates the forklift that unloads the fruit into the Dirkses’ yard. During the peak peach season, Dirks has as many as six people working for her, including her own children, who help all summer.


“By 8 or 9 at night, we may have only 20 boxes left,” Dirks said. “And then some stragglers usually show up the next day. It’s just fast and furious.”


Dirks said the physical demands of processing almost 1,000 boxes of fruit in one day can leave her “kind of comatose,” but she’s not complaining.


“I feel really good about what’s going on,” she said. “We’ve gotten to the place where I’m satisfied as big as it is. I don’t really want it much bigger.”


Even with the physical and logistic challenges, Dirks said she plans to keep on distributing Saxton fruit indefinitely. Her business has more than economic benefits.


“The thing we appreciate so much about it is that I have a part-time job here at home that enables me to be my own boss,” she said. “So I’m home for my kids even if I don’t have kids at home anymore because they’re all in school.


“That’s something that’s important to us.”

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