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Grower voice needs protection, leader says

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

One of four Washington tree fruit trade groups looking at merging says the voice of independent growers needs greater protection.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — The definition of grower needs to be tightened to ensure representation of independent growers on any new board governing the merger of four Washington tree fruit trade organizations, the leader of one says.

Under a current proposal, a vertically integrated company that grows, packs and markets fruit could hold grower, packer and at-large positions on the new board, said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Grower Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.

“The Washington Clearing House board unanimously felt there should be more specific spots on the board set aside for non-vertically integrated growers who make a significant part of their income from the production of tree fruit,” Mayer said.

That would address concerns that the voice of small growers would be lost, he said.

The Clearing House, Washington State Horticultural Association, Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association and Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association are talking about merging to provide a unified voice in state and federal legislative and regulatory affairs. 

A task force of the four organizations and several large packer-marketers wants industry comments by Jan. 10 on whether to merge, how large a new board should be and how board positions are defined to ensure adequate representation of all members of the industry, Mayer said.

Comments have been few so far, said Mayer and Jon DeVaney, executive director of YVGSA. The task force meets Jan. 17 to decide whether to proceed, and if so, to “tweak” the plan and send it to the four groups’ boards asking for a vote by March 1, Mayer said. That timing should allow for a new organization to be operational by Sept. 1, he said.

DeVaney said the few comments he’s received have been positive and that the YVGSA board is supportive.

Consolidation will be vastly more efficient for growers and support is strong from all sectors of the industry, said Bruce Grim, executive director of the Hort Association.

A lot of growers are worried they will lose their voice, said Frank Lyall, a Grandview grower and Clearing House board and task force member.

“There’s more than a bit of cynicism that it (the new organization) will represent the interests of packers first and growers second even though growers outnumber packers by a factor of 10 or more,” Lyall said. “The packing operations have the economic clout.

“There’s kind of a culture clash and resentment toward the Clearing House for being open and transparent regarding the press and the industry. That’s been a positive for the grower. When we have an organization composed of so many diverse groups, inevitably there will be closer control of information to the media, public and perhaps even in the industry.

“Growers want to keep receiving price and movement data. The new group has pledged that but there is no guarantee. If there’s opposition to widespread distribution of data by significantly powerful players, the amount of data and how much is distributed could be reduced. That’s a major concern among growers.”

Lyall’s brother, Charles Lyall, a Mattawa grower, said the industry needs more voices, not fewer, in legislative arenas.

Norm Gutzwiler, a small Wenatchee grower with a history of industry involvement, said there’s support and concern in each of the four organizations but that merger is important to have once voice in dealing with issues like food safety.

There’s concern about the power of big versus small, integrated versus independent producer and Wenatchee versus Yakima, he said. “But no one should have a problem with making it a neutral board, a group that represents everybody and move on with business,” he said.



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