WENATCHEE, Wash. — Washington tree fruit growers says they are pleased that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has finally announced her support of the U.S-Mexico-Canada Agreement and that the House will likely vote on it next week.

The Washington State Tree Fruit Association and Northwest Horticultural Council have been working with ag groups for passage of the trade agreement for more than a year.

“This is good news for our growers. Our industry has been very supportive of getting it ratified,” said Tim Kovis, association spokesman.

Mexico and Canada are top export markets for Washington apples, totaling nearly $500 million in annual sales. The agreement maintains duty-free access and improves phytosanitary rules and dispute resolutions, industry leaders have said.

Kovis said about 1,800 people were attending the annual meeting and trade show that began Dec. 9 at the Wenatchee Convention Center and ends Dec. 11.

First-day sessions included association and U.S. Apple Association updates on governmental issues and updates from researchers, marketers and lenders.

'Brutal factors'

Sean Gilbert, association board chairman and a Yakima grower-packer-shipper, said he’s encouraged by the quality of this year’s crop but that labor, trade and consumer preferences are three “brutal factors” facing the industry.

“On trade, we must realize that our industry’s scale grew during a period of market access and a cheap dollar, and that magic combination isn’t likely to return soon,” Gilbert said. “We must fight for market share abroad where people want our apples while pivoting with renewed focus on the needs of domestic consumers.”

The industry is facing increasing domestic competition from grapes, citrus and berries.

Quality is key in maintaining market share, Gilbert said.

How the new Cosmic Crisp apple is received by consumers, the role of private equity capital in the industry’s short- and long-term health, harvest automation and Little Cherry Disease are all important issues, he said.

Positive messaging

Jon DeVaney, association president, said the association continues to seek positive messaging, particularly to Western Washington legislators who often target agriculture.

“Whether we like it or not, this year will be all about President Trump because that’s how he likes it, making sure it’s all about him,” DeVaney said.

Whenever Trump says or does something that enrages the left in Central Puget Sound it causes them to want to punish conservative Eastern Washington counties, he said.

“Progressives need to know we already pay more than $15 an hour and that we helped negotiate a farm labor bill (the Lofgren-Newhouse Farm Workforce Modernization Act),” DeVaney said.

Reducing carbon emissions will remain a priority in the upcoming legislative session. That will increase fuel costs. A slavery bill and chlorpyrifos ban are also likely to resurface, he said.

A pro-ag effort will be adding the pear processing industry to a state law requiring processors to recognize and talk to producer associations on contract pricing, DeVaney said.

Another is a bill to create a Washington apple logo vehicle license plate with proceeds going to the Washington Apple Education Foundation, which already provides more than $1 million annually in college scholarships to students from grower and farmworker families.

Research success

Ines Hanrahan, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, highlighted commission accomplishments in its first 50 years, noting it has awarded more than $120 million for more than 800 research projects since its inception in 1969.

Beside supporting efforts in robotic apple picking, the commission is working on a proposal to launch a pear breeding program, is working on new sprayer technology and is working with Western Growers and other agricultural groups to get Amazon and other large corporations to see value in supporting tree fruit research.

Tech advances 

George Kantor, senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, said technology development takes a long time, partly because it isn’t always easy for start-up companies to get funding. He noted 12 years ago he worked with Washington State University researchers to develop a self-propelled ATV at Sunrise Research Orchard near Wenatchee.

Now such ATVs are more advanced in detecting and moving around obstacles and are beginning to be sold for tasks such as hauling blueberry bins.

Self-propelled ATVs with cameras and sensors are being used to determine crop load and size of grapes in vineyards, he said.

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