Stemilt president to lead Hort
West Mathison is the incoming president of the Washington State Horticultural Association.
West Mathison wants the tree fruit industry to have greater political influence
West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, Inc., one of the largest fruit growing, shipping, and marketing businesses in Washington State, takes on another major responsibiity this year as president of the Washington State Horticultural Association.
The association represents Washington orchardists on state legislative and regulatory matters. Mathison, 34, has been on the board since 2002. As president, the main issue he wants to focus on is how the tree fruit industry can have a more effective voice at the state capital
“I’ve been part of other industry groups, and I’ve noticed there are industries much smaller than ours that have much more political influence,” he said.
When Washington’s various tree fruit organizations were formed many years ago, the industry was made up of small, independent growers. The multiplicity of organizations allowed more growers to be involved in industry leadership. But with industry consolidation and the difficulty of gaining the attention of politicians and legislators today, it’s more important that the industry now speak with a unified voice, Mathison believes. He sees a need for Hort to try to unify the industry so it can be more effective.
“If you don’t have exactly the same sound bite, you lose the strength of your message,” he said.
Because of the economic recession, Washington State is experiencing both revenue and expense challenges, Mathison noted.
“And with agriculture being such a huge revenue generator for the state, I see one of our big focuses being how we limit and mitigate any sort of new taxes or regulations that could be placed upon our industry.
“I think with government in general, there are very limited things they can do to help the industry, but there are a lot of things they can do to hurt the industry, and I see that as an issue we have to be careful about.”
The Washington tree fruit industry has not felt much direct impact from the recession, because apples and pears are staple foods. Profitability in those industries is linked more to supply and demand than the general economy. But Mathison believes the balance of supply and demand will change and that one of the greatest challenges facing the industry will be the future impact of all the apples and cherries that have been planted in the last five years.
In cherries, besides the traditional production peak in the third and fourth week of June, he expects to see a new peak a month later. Cherry packers are upgrading and expanding their lines to handle larger volumes more efficiently, but it’s hard to build consumption before you actually produce the volume, Mathison said.
“I think the way we effectively sell these crops is by improving quality and improving consistency of the dessert-eating experience,” he said, noting that big crops tend to lead to grade and quality inflation. “I think people who grow big, firm, juicy cherries and can grow good yields per acre will stay in business. The challenge is there’s a percentage of the industry that doesn’t fit into that category.”
In terms of apples, the challenge will be the increasing number of new varieties, Mathison believes. The more traditional varieties, like Fuji and Gala, are in demand in export markets, but most of the newer varieties are being produced for the domestic market, which will make it difficult to effectively market them all. “I’m not sure we’ll have enough shelf space for all of these different varieties,” he said.
Mathison thinks each of the new varieties will have its own window of opportunity, and they will be merchandized in turn to keep the apple category exciting and dynamic as varieties come and go during the season. SweeTango, a variety that matures before Gala, will probably kick off the new season ahead of local apple supplies.
Although the local food trend is strong, the Washington apple industry has a relatively small carbon footprint when the entire supply chain is considered, Mathison said. Producers use hydroelectricity, and because of the arid climate, there are relatively few pests and diseases
“We’re a very efficient and clean industry for growing tree fruits relative to other major growing regions,” he said. “We get 50 bins per acre, we don’t have to spray for scab every week; we move everything around in full loads, and we have access to rail across the country.”
Stemilt has had its own sustainability program, Responsible Choice, for over 20 years. It encompasses everything from minimizing pesticide use to recycling to caring for its employees.
This fall, the company, which packs and sells about 20 million cartons of tree fruits, was recognized as one of the greenest companies in Washington State by Seattle Business Magazine. All the waste from Stemilt’s packing plants is used to make compost for orchards. The company also collects yard waste from the local community to compost. On the social side, Stemilt provides a free on-site health clinic for employees. Stemilt was also recognized this year for its commitment to food safety by the Safe Quality Food Institute.
Mathison said consumers are concerned about sustainability and are starting to ask the right questions. “Consumers are attempting to understand where their fruit comes from and they want to connect with people who are in business and have a real authenticity to do the right thing.
“I think it’s the future,” he added. “I think people really want to know more about the products they use and the foods they consume.”
Although the Responsible Choice program was a manifestation of his grandfather Tom’s desire to do the right thing as a company, it’s also been beneficial to Stemilt because it’s been an effective and economical way of doing business. The company has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years through using sustainable practices.
“I’m not sure it’s helped us sell more product, but it’s helped us have a better dialogue with our customers,” Mathison said. “You start to develop a different, almost an entrepreneurial relationship with each other that’s more than price and volume.”
Stemilt’s philosophy is that it is in business not to produce fruit to sell, but to produce fruit to eat.
“Even though it sounds subtle, those are totally different paradigms,” Mathison said. “As soon as we have something that’s really good to eat, we’re always thinking about how do we align the supply chain so it hits the shelf at its optimum eating period.”