By DAN WHEAT
YAKIMA, Wash. -- A pending purchase of Independent Foods' tree fruit processing plant in Sunnyside by vegetable processor giant Seneca Foods, Marion, N.Y., may give the Washington-Oregon Canning Pear Association new life.
The association bargains pear processing prices for Northwest pear growers but the number of processors it negotiates with dropped from three to two with last year's exit of the business by Truitt Brothers Inc., Salem, Ore. It left just Del Monte Foods, of San Francisco, with its plants in Yakima, and Northwest Packing Co., of Vancouver, Wash., for the association to deal with.
Del Monte defeated Truitt in bidding for the bankrupt Snokist Growers plant in Yakima last May.
The Canning Pear Association never negotiated with Snokist or Independent, which were cooperatives, set their own prices with members and did little or no open cash market buying.
In his September newsletter, Jay Grandy, Canning Pear Association manager, invited members to voice their opinions to board members about the future of the association. He noted there's no Northwest bargaining association for apple and cherry processing.
In November, Independent announced it signed a memorandum of understanding with Seneca for sale of its plant. Independent processed pears, apples and cherries and is keeping orchards, Grandy said.
"Seneca has facilities in California, buys pears in California and negotiates with California Pear Growers (an association), so I'm hoping it will be the same up here but I have no way to know yet," Grandy said.
He said he's hoping for developments before the association's annual meeting Feb. 19 in Yakima.
Chris Morton and Andrew Sundquist, association board members and Yakima Bartlett growers, said they haven't received any grower comments but think growers want to keep the association to give them some bargaining power with processors.
Growers were concerned and uncertain last spring over the bankruptcy of Snokist and the exit of Truitt, Sundquist said.
Morton said he'd like to see the price reach $300 a ton and that there would be no dialogue without the association.
The association has about 1,300 members and negotiated a new, three-year contract in May with Del Monte and Northwest Packing. Both paid growers $260 per ton for field run No. 1 grade pears in 2012, up from $256 in 2011. The price increases to $266 per ton in 2013 and $272 in 2014.
The Washington-Oregon Canning Pear Association began in 1954. The number of canners has shrunk since then.
Fresh produce from around the world is more available in supermarkets now than even 30 years ago and emphasis on buying fresh foods has taken a toll on canned pear consumption.
Washington and Oregon production has leveled off at about 125,000 tons of canned pears in the last couple of years and California at 20,000 tons. The three states produced about 500,000 processing tons in the mid-1990s and grow the vast majority of the nation's pears for fresh and canned sales. Most of the pears for canning are grown in the Yakima district.
The USDA continues to be the largest customer, buying canned pears for school lunches. China and South Africa began exporting canned pears to the U.S. in 2000.
The association operates on a voluntary $1 per ton assessment on growers and $1 per ton service charge to cash-buying processors that generates more than $90,000 annually. Expenses have been about $90,000 a year for the past 10 years, Grandy said. Excess reserves are refunded to growers when appropriate.