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Tree fruit groups pursue merger talks

By Dan Wheat Capital Press
 Four Washington tree fruit trade organizations are pushing ahead with potential consolidation and plan to present a proposal to the industry at the annual meeting of the Washington State Horticultural Association in December. The Hort Association, Washington Growers Clearing House Association, Wenatchee Valley Trafic Association and Yakima Valley Growers-Shppers Association have been talking about consolidation for four yearsr.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — Four Washington tree fruit trade organizations are pushing ahead with potential consolidation and plan to present a proposal to the industry at the annual meeting of the Washington State Horticultural Association in December.

The Hort Association, Washington Growers Clearing House Association, Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association and Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association have been talking about consolidation for four years.

Talks intensified in the last two years after West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, supported the idea at the Hort Association’s annual meeting in 2011 in conclusion of his year as association president. He called for a new industry organization with strong participation from large companies that handle orchards, packing, shipping and marketing. He cited overlap of responsibilities and the lack of one clear voice on state and federal legislative issues. But at that time former Congressman Sid Morrison, a Zillah grower, publicly defended many voices and noted in the past shippers wanted to remain apart from growers.

Today there are concerns among Clearing House board members that all growers, whether large or small, can be members, participate and receive similar data, said Kirk Mayer, Clearing House manager.

Growers want assurances they will still have access to timely shipping and pricing information, he said.

There are concerns about large company domination. Most growers are small independents, but large companies control most of the tonnage.

Mathison said information currently going to the Clearing House or other groups will be at the same level or improve.

Board make-up needs to reflect the demographics of the industry in terms of number of growers and volume, he said. “We cannot do it on just volume or one-grower, one-vote,” he said. “It will be a balance.”

A task force of the four organizations, chaired by Mathison, next meets Sept. 13 in Wenatchee. It will present a proposal at the Hort Association conference in December and be open for comments thereafter, Mathison said. Early in 2014, the group will meet and determine whether or not to proceed, he said.

More than 32 industry members have been interviewed by consultants, no name for a new organization has been discussed and a merger — rather than dissolution of the four organizations and creation of a new one — probably would cost less, Mathison said.

It’s likely 12 to 18 months before any changes occur, said Bruce Grim, Hort Association executive director.

The Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association and Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association issue regular reports on fruit sales and storage holdings that companies use to make pricing and supply decisions. They also help shippers with transportation issues. The Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers, Hort Association and Clearing House all work governmental issues and the Clearing House tracks fruit sales and prices by size and grade.

In 2011, Mathison talked about combining that into an executive leadership board with subcommittees and managers overseeing: political and regulatory issues; education and communication; shipment and price information; and technology.



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