Capital Press file photo
The Washington Strawberry Commission, inactive and soon to officially dissolve, didn’t produce records to document that it spent grower assessments appropriately over a five-year period, according to the state auditor’s office.
The commission’s former part-time manager, Walter Swenson, did not provide documents on expenditures that auditors requested. Auditors were able to look at bank statements and strawberry production records.
“The limited documentation provided did not reveal any misspent funds,” according to the auditor’s report released Oct. 4.
The routine audit covered the years 2013 through 2017. Inadequate internal controls put the public funds at greater risk of loss, waste and abuse, according to the audit. Since the commission will disband at the end of this year, the auditor’s office recommended no further action.
Strawberry growers petitioned the state Department of Agriculture to close the commission because of declining funds and interest among farmers. The half-cent per pound assessment raised $36,144 in 2016, the last year assessments were collected.
Commission board member Richard Sakuma, of Sakuma Brothers Farms in Skagit County, said Monday that the commission met once a year to allocate the money, mostly for research. The commission also had some administrative costs, including Swenson’s salary. The commission did not have an office.
“It was pretty low key,” Sakuma said. “I felt everything was OK.”
Swenson resigned in August 2017, according to the auditor’s office. Efforts to reach Swenson were unsuccessful.
Washington has 21 agricultural commissions. The state Department of Agriculture is represented on each commission. As required, the strawberry commission submitted budgets to the department in 2015, 2016 and 2017, a department spokesman said.
Sakuma took over as the strawberry commission’s chairman after growers petitioned the department to disband it.
Farmers who supply strawberries to processors saw little benefit to the commission. Sakuma said that he hoped some growers would be interested in continuing a commission to promote fresh strawberries and to have an organization in place in case a problem arose that affected the strawberry industry.
“It just couldn’t get the traction,” he said. “There just isn’t much of an industry left.”
The assessments collected in 2016 were about one-third the amount collected 15 years ago. Farmers cite labor costs and competition from California for the decline in production.