YAKIMA, Wash. — Mike Willett, manager of the Washington State Tree Fruit Research Commission, was crowned the 75th cherry king at the annual Cherry Institute of Northwest Cherry Growers at the Yakima Convention Center on Jan. 18.
Willett’s career in Northwest tree fruit started with picking peaches at an Orondo orchard in 1969 when he “slept in a ditch” and will end 50 years later this summer when he retires as commission manager, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, the industry’s promotional arm.
The main part of Willett’s career was 20 years at the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima, where he began as technical issues manager in 1996 and spent many years as vice president of scientific affairs before leaving in December 2015 to become manager of the research commission.
At NHC, he worked on many market access and free trade issues, including opening Australia to Northwest cherries.
Willett, 67, was born into a working-class family in Detroit, Mich., in 1951. He grew up in the inner city and worked from an early age.
On a road trip after his first year at Eastern Michigan University in 1969, Willett heard of fruit harvest in Washington and arrived in Orondo where he “slept in a ditch near an orchard and waited for the next morning’s opportunity to begin what would become a long career in tree fruit,” Thurlby said.
Willett received his bachelor’s degree in horticulture at Michigan State University and his master’s degree and doctorate in horticulture at Washington State University, under noted sweet cherry innovator Ed Proebsting.
He worked for Oregon State University Extension in Medford and then WSU Extension in Yakima before joining NHC.
Willett previously received the silver pear and distinguished service awards from the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.