(May 2, 1:16 p.m.) Madera, Calif.-based Western Fresh Marketing Services Inc. is expanding.

Western Fresh established a Midwest office in Menominee, Mich., in early April, said company president George Kragie. Western Fresh also has a branch office in Hawaii.

The Midwest office serves a dual purpose. Western Fresh has begun planting apple, chestnut and hazelnut orchards in Michigan, Kragie said. The company is focusing on specialty apple varieties such as Honeycrisp and royal cortland, he said.

The Midwest office also will give Kragie the opportunity to strengthen ties with retail customers located in the eastern half of the country.

“With the portal-to-portal approach to business these days, you don’t often get a chance to sit down and talk with the buyers,” Kragie said. “It’s time, I think, to do things the old-fashioned way and go visiting. I’m really excited about talking with the buyers about what we have to offer and see where we could be of service.”

Nearly simultaneous with the opening of the Michigan office, Western Fresh reached a strategic marketing agreement with J. Marchini & Sons Inc., Le Grand, Calif., Kragie said. A substantial percentage of Western Fresh’s California fresh fig inventory, about 1 million tray equivalents, will be loaded out of the J. Marchini & Sons cold storage operation, he said.

Western Fresh will continue to market some of the J. Marchini & Sons black mission figs, a relationship that began in 2007.

Kragie said the Le Grand facility is a modern operation that is third-party certified for good agricultural practices (GAP), which he said meets all of the requirements of major retailers.

A benefit to J. Marchini & Sons is that Western Fresh will market the company’s black missions along with the several other fig varieties that Western Fresh sells.

Kragie said retailers can expect the California fresh fig season to begin the second week in May in the desert. The season could ramp up quickly. Picking in the Lost Hills fields in the southern San Joaquin Valley may start about the same time as the desert harvest, he said.

Kragie said the volume from the Lost Hills fields could be up 20% over last year and that he also expected larger volume from the Chowchilla and Merced orchards.

Growing its own commodities in Michigan is something of a departure for Western Fresh, which was established as a sales agent for California growers, Kragie said.

“I’ve always found it to be a poor business plan to compete against the growers I represent,” he said.

The Michigan orchards do not run contrary to that business plan because Western Fresh does not represent apple or nut growers, Kragie said.

The Michigan office may not be limited to growing and marketing produce.

Kragie said future plans may include small retail outlets that would offer the company’s commodities and other regionally-produced items such as Michigan maple syrup and crafts from local artisans.

The outlets would include loading docks for shipping, he said.

Michigan will not be a year-round assignment for Kragie.

“I’ll be back in California for the kiwifruit and the import seasons,” he said.

Western Fresh, which Kragie said is known for its exotic fruits, imports kiwifruit, Asian pears and quince from Chile and Italy.