Change is constant, Hort president finds
Blair Losvar thinks club and niche varieties will help small growers succeed in a still consolidating tree fruit industry.
After last harvest, Blair Losvar pulled out all his remaining Red and Golden Delicious trees. In the past decade, he’s transformed his family’s 200-acre orchard to better position himself in the changing tree fruit industry, and he expects more changes to come.
In 1994, after working as a field horticulturist for 14 years—first with the cooperative Chief Wenatchee, and then with Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, Washington—Losvar returned to the family orchard at Loomis, near Washington’s border with Canada. His motivation was partly to allow his parents, Al and Isabelle Losvar, more opportunity to do things other than farm while they were still healthy. “And I also felt, at that time, there was a financial incentive to be a grower, not a horticulturist, and an opportunity to do my own thing and try to use what I’d learned over the years myself instead of just instructing other people how to do it.”
But things didn’t turn out quite how he planned. While it’s been in many ways satisfying, fruit growing has proven challenging and not been particularly lucrative, he said. When he returned to Loomis, the orchard was heavily planted with striped Red Delicious apples that his parents had grown for the export market. The following year, he began replanting, a process that became all the more urgent as the Red Delicious market declined.
“Basically, we’ve been replanting ever since I’ve been back,” he said. “I knew I was going to have to do substantial revamping in the orchard, but I didn’t realize it was going to have to happen as rapidly as it had to.”
As a relatively small grower in an industry that’s been consolidating, Losvar had to acknowledge several years ago that he could not compete directly with the very large companies.
“The economics just aren’t there for me to run my operation like a 2,000- to 3,000-acre organization,” he said. “I decided to go into more specialty-type varieties that would give me a greater return than the mainstream varieties.”
He has Gala, Pacific Rose, and Jazz apples, along with cherries and pears.
Losvar thinks that growers who have replanted into club or niche varieties with better profit potential will be the ones who make it in the future, though it won’t be without risk. For example, with the New Zealand varieties Pacific Rose and Jazz, growers have to pay ENZA, the variety owner, a certain amount per acre to grow the variety, as well as production fees.
“When I got into the ENZA deal, it was a high-risk deal,” he said. “Friends of mine said I was being a sharecropper, and how could I do this? They said, ‘I certainly wouldn’t pay anybody to grow their variety on my land.’ But, now, there’s a waiting list of people wanting to get into the program, and it’s a closed program.”
The risk to the grower is substantial because they don’t know if a new variety will be successful or not, he added. The grower probably has $15,000 to $17,000 per acre invested in establishing the orchard, plus the growing costs until the planting comes into production.
“You need to do your homework and select wisely,” Losvar cautions. “If you make a mistake, you blow it.”
He does not foresee all of Washington’s apple crop being made up of club varieties, however. He thinks growers can still make money if they grow very high quality mainstream varieties like Gala or Fuji. They will need good strains of those varieties and will need to use good horticultural practices.
“It used to be if you had a crop of apples, you’d make money,” he reflected. “That’s not going to happen anymore. It’s going to have to be the proper variety, the proper size, and you’re going to have to go through a marketer that’s going to do a good job for you, in order to make it.”
He expects further consolidation or expansion of orchards and packing operations. This is a challenge that faces the Washington State Horticultural Association, of which he is president this year. The association will have to find ways to continue to serve all the different aspects of the industry, from the smallest growers to the largest, vertically integrated companies. And yet, the fact that its membership of almost 3,000 spans the whole gamut of growing operations is also a strength.
The Hort Association’s main purposes are to provide educational opportunities for growers and packers and to represent the industry on regulatory and legislative issues. Losvar said it will be important for the association to continue to educate orchard managers and owners about practices they can use to produce high quality fruit, as it has for the past century at its annual meetings.
On the political side, the association is represented at the Washington State Legislature in Olympia by lobbyist Jim Halstrom. It has recently become more active in regulatory matters, working with state agencies as they develop or change regulations.
“There are more adverse things that have happened to us through the regulatory process than the political process,” said Losvar, who has been on the board of the Hort Association for 12 years and has chaired its Government Affairs Committee since 1999.
Every new regulation costs growers time and money to implement, he said, and larger operations sometimes have to hire more staff to deal with them.
As hort president, Losvar would like to see the tree fruit industry be more united. “If we work together as a cohesive group, I think we can accomplish much more than each of us trying to pick out our own pieces of the pie,” he said. “The end goal for everybody is to be profitable. If the orchardists aren’t profitable, they’re not going to be around to supply the warehouses with a product to run. Even if they’re vertically integrated, their orchards have to be profitable because they can’t support their orchards on what they make from the warehouse.”