There’s a powerhouse in town this week, one that is responsible for billions of dollars of economic activity for the state of Washington.
The powerhouse is the tree-fruit industry and the event is the 108th annual convention of the Washington State Horticultural Association that opened Monday, drawing up to 1,600 people to the Yakima Convention Center for three days of informational meetings. A trade show with 250 exhibitors is operating at the Yakima Valley SunDome, where growers can learn about equipment, services and products.
The convention, which is staged in Yakima every other year, contributes about $628,000 in economic activity to the city, according to an estimate by John Cooper, chief executive officer for the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau.
This year’s convention theme is succession planning for transfer of business ownership to the next generation.
Jolene Brown, an Iowa consultant with 30 years of experience in helping families prepare for the future, said relying on hope that everything will work out is not a good business model.
She urged growers to have plans in place that focus on being a business-first family and not a family-first business.
“There are people roadblocks, not production roadblocks. We want the senior generation to celebrate what they started and appreciate what they have done and take responsibility if they want it to continue and that they do the work necessary,” she said.
The fruit industry is going through changes and must continue to adapt and become more efficient, according to David Douglas of Pasco, this year’s president of the association’s board of directors.
Douglas, a member of the family ownership group of Douglas Fruit Co., said the industry will continue to deal with larger and larger crops in the future that will place a premium on controlling costs and increasing productivity. Those increases, he said, will come from higher yields on the same number of acres. Apples are grown on about 160,000 acres in the state.
“In the future, we will grow larger and larger crops. The mix of varieties has changed and is vastly different,” he said, a reference to a reducing reliance on Red Delicious and increasing volumes of varieties like Honeycrisp, Gala and other newer varieties. “We have to continue to make sure we are growing the mix of fruit the market desires. As we grow larger crops, it is important to be in position to export.”
Export sales account for about a third of all the apples sold.
A premium on marketing exists this year, as the state’s apple industry produced a record crop this fall of more than 121 million boxes. The industry has had good sales so far this year, with much smaller crops in competing states because of frost damage.
Just how much the industry contributes to the state’s economy is outlined in a study issued this summer by economists at the request of the Washington Apple Commission. The study concluded the apple industry contributed more than $7 billion to the state’s economy during the 2010-11 marketing season. Nearly 60,000 people were employed in production and related industries, generating wages of about $1.95 billion.
Douglas said the industry is working to increase mechanization to deal with labor issues. Agriculture has experienced labor shortages the last two years.
“Mechanization is something the industry needs to work toward. All our apples are hand-picked. There will be some that will be machine-harvested. It is hard to know how soon,” he said. “People are thinking about it and working on it.”
A number of mechanical systems for harvest and other orchard duties are being tested, thanks to industry contributions and federal grants.
• David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or email@example.com.