Officials look for cost savings, efficiency through mergers
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Four of Washington's many tree fruit industry organizations are giving thought to possible mergers, but their managers emphasize that discussions are preliminary.
Two of the four, the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association and the 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 problems.
The Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, the Washington State Horticultural Association and Washington Growers Clearing House Association all work on governmental issues at the state and federal levels to varying degrees. The clearing house tracks fruit sales and prices by size and grade.
"A group of people, north and south, began discussions a year ago when Keith Mathews left Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers," said Bruce Grim, horticulture association executive director.
He said the group is looking at which services are essential and if there's a more efficient way to provide them.
Discussions are conceptual, not a secret, Grim said. The boards are interested in what growers think of possible mergers.
Mathews, now CEO of First Fruits Marketing of Washington in Yakima, said the idea of merging Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers and Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association didn't gain traction because it didn't look like it would save much money. One of the two could do the job of both, saving staff costs, but that could be lost by having a single manager live in either Yakima or Wenatchee while frequently visiting the other, he said.
One idea might be to merge the marketing-related activities in one organization and the governmental affairs work in another from all four organizations, Grim said.
But Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, said coordination between Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers and the horticulture association has improved significantly. He said lobbyists in Olympia for both have good relations with each other and with different legislators. Working together, they have greater access to legislators, he said.
It's vital, he said, for growers and companies to attend the upcoming Feb. 1 horticulture association tree fruit day in Olympia to keep industry issues before legislators.
Grim said a lot of the industry organizations work well together but none pay close enough attention to regulatory agencies, which can be as onerous as the Legislature. The horticulture association has a regulatory affairs position that has never been filled and won't be until ideas of a merger are resolved, he said.
Grim said he, Mayer and Charles Pomianek, manager of Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association, all might retire at about the same time in a few years, which is another reason for merger talk now. "Retirement shouldn't be the driver but it is a reality. It does make it a more opportune time," he said.
Pomianek said he has no comment.
Mayer said the clearing house has had internal discussions about mergers but no formal discussions with other organizations. No costs savings have been identified. He said several organizations share some office equipment and staff since moving into the Washington Apple Commission Building in Wenatchee a couple of years ago.
Grim said the apple, pear and cherry marketing associations, which he manages, need to remain separate because of federal law. He said the Northwest Horticultural Council and Northwest Fruit Exporters, both in Yakima, have some overlap in activities but do good "stand-alone jobs" and are not part of discussions.