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Tree fruit merger talks expose divisions

Four Washington tree fruit trade organizations seek grower comment on probable consolidation. One grower says it will be a loss of voice for independent growers.
Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Published on December 4, 2013 9:13AM

Last changed on December 4, 2013 9:14AM

WENATCHEE, Wash. — The balance of power between independent growers and large tree fruit companies is a point of contention in an effort to consolidate four Washington tree fruit trade organizations.

A task force headed by West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, the nation’s largest, non-citrus tree fruit company, distributed an outline for consolidation at the Washington State Horticultural Association annual meeting, Dec. 3. The task force wants comments from industry members by Jan. 10 before deciding whether to move forward to complete consolidation by next August.

The new organization may be called the Washington State Tree Fruit Association or the Washington State Grower-Shippers Association. It would be the merger of the 109-year-old Washington State Horticultural Association, Washington Growers Clearing House Association, Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association and Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.

The idea has been discussed for four years but more so the last two after Mathison endorsed it at the Hort Association’s 2011 annual meeting in conclusion of his year as association president. At that time, he called for strong participation from large companies that handle orchards, packing, shipping and marketing. He cited overlap of responsibilities and lack of one clear voice on state and federal legislative issues. But at that same meeting, former Congressman Sid Morrison, a Zillah grower, defended many voices and noted shippers long wanted to remain apart from growers.

At the Dec. 3 meeting, Frank Lyall, a Grandview grower, Clearing House board member and only independent grower on the task force, said the merger is a loss of power for small, independent growers. He noted large companies pack and sell 80 percent of the state’s fruit and believe they should have “majority say which is logical and in their self interests.” He called it moving from grower-based to “pay to play.”

“The hazard is independent growers will lose their voice and that will lead to a lack of credibility,” Lyall said.

“That’s speculative,” Mathison responded, adding the group wants the participation of everyone.

Lyall said the “Utopian view” of a single voice in lobbying won’t always hold up as small growers and large companies usually disagree to some level on taxation and regulations.

“I don’t think that’s an issue. I think that’s a red herring,” said Bruce Grim, Hort Association executive director.

But Lyall replied big companies favor an 11-cent per gallon increase in fuel tax to improve highways while small growers don’t.

Mathison said it’s healthier for issues like that to be resolved internally so that the industry can speak with one voice.

Small growers should have representation but not necessarily equal representation because “you follow where the money comes from,” Grim said. “Frank sees it as the big guys out to screw the little guys. We don’t see it that way.”

The outline calls for a governing board of 11 to 16 members. Four would be growers with one from the Wenatchee District (Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties), one from the Columbia Basin (Grant, Adams and Franklin counties) and two from the Yakima District (Kittitas, Yakima and Benton counties). Four would be packers with the same district breakdown and the balance would be growers, packers or marketers from any district with no marketing group holding more than one position.

Current functions of the four organizations would continue with volume, movement and pricing information at the same or better levels for all members, Mathison said.

The organization would be funded at about the same level of grower assessments that all of the organizations receive now, said Charles Pomianek, manager of the Traffic Association. That’s about $10.50 for a truck load of fruit now and it probably could become $7.50, he said.

Offices would be maintained in Wenatchee and Yakima.

“We have a world class fruit industry that is second to none,” Mathison said. “Grady Auvil (the late owner of Auvil Fruit) and my grandfather (Tom Mathision, founder of Stemilt) started the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and then there was the endowment that took things to a new level,” Mathison said. “This is the same type of example of how to build an entity to compete globally to maintain the strength of this industry.”


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