WENATCHEE, Wash. — Dalton Thomas, a leader in the Washington tree fruit industry, was recognized for his “pioneering contribution” in developing U.S. fresh fruit exports to Asia at the Asiafruit Congress in Hong Kong on Sept. 4.
Thomas retired a year ago as president of Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, which was founded by his late father Paul “Tommy” Thomas in 1934 as the first exporter of Washington apples.
It was during the Great Depression and Tommy Thomas traded a boat load of apples into Europe for a half load of tire sand nails that he sold in the U.S.
Dalton Thomas worked a year as a USDA fruit and vegetable inspector before joining quality control and then the sales desk of his father’s Wenatchee-based company in 1966. The younger Thomas became president in the 1970s and opened Washington apple exports to Asia in 1972 with the first shipment to Taiwan. He also led the way into Indonesia and other Asian markets.
“He saw the opportunity before anyone else did,” said Scott Marboe, Oneonta Starr Ranch marketing director.
“When I came to the company in 1987, he would load two to three ships to Asia and Middle East — open cargo ships of 160,000 to 230,000 (40-pound) boxes each and he would fly over to help with the inspection and unloading,” Marboe said. “It was quite a process and a team effort. A lot of people in the industry at that time knew we knew what we were doing and relied on us.”
Eventually other Washington tree fruit companies began handling their own exports. Oneonta shifted from being 65 percent export and 35 percent domestic sales to 70 percent domestic and 30 percent export, the same as other companies today.
“We are still selling to the same companies that Dalton pioneered in the ’70s and ’80s in the Middle East and Asia,” Marboe said.
Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission in Wenatchee, said he met Thomas in 1985 as a competitor salesman for another company and soon respected Thomas as “the best export sales person in the industry bar none.”
Later, when Fryhover was commission president and Thomas was a commissioner, Fryhover said he enjoyed watching Thomas when industry members welcomed importers on trade missions.
“My job was complete with introductions and I sat back and watched the interaction. I’ve never seen anyone work a room better than Dalton. He meets everyone in the room and comes away with orders for fruit,” Fryhover said.
Asiafruit Congress is a 20-year-old annual conference for fresh fruit and vegetable producers and marketers. Thomas received its first Impact Award for his “pioneering contribution to developing Washington and U.S. fresh fruit exports to Asia.”
A Chilean cherry committee, an Indian importer and Indonesian retailer also were honored.
Thomas’ sons, Brad and Jimmy, are now president and vice president, respectively, of Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers. Brett Reasor is CEO. The family also owns Custom Apple Packers, also in Wenatchee.
Oneonta sells about 15 million boxes of apples annually with 1.3 million of that organic. It sells about 2 million boxes of cherries, 2 million boxes of pears and 500,000 boxes of stone fruit. It also sells table grapes, citrus and other commodities to domestic and international customers.
Among companies it sells for, besides itself and Custom, are Gilbert Orchards and Columbia Reach, both in Yakima, Davis Orchards in Milton-Freewater, Ore., and Diamond Fruit in Odell, Ore.