As I travel the country visiting apple growers and apple companies, one question keeps coming up: Who will be the next generation of apple leaders, the ones to lead the apple industry beyond the next decade?

USApple’s 2009 Apple Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference, held last August in Chicago, featured a panel discussion on the future of the Washington apple industry and, indirectly, the American apple industry. Three of the four panelists—Robert Kershaw of Domex, Inc., West Mathison of Stemilt Growers, and Mark Zirkle of Rainier Fruit Company—are from the new generation of apple leaders. The fourth, Reggie Collins of Chelan Fruit, represents a cooperative of growers, many of them young third-and fourth-generation orchardists.

As I listened to the lively discussion (which received top ratings from conference attendees), I began to consider how many times I have heard current and past apple leaders ask “Who will the apple leaders of tomorrow be?” and “How will the apple industry look in 20 years?”

Not long ago, apple businesses were passed on to the next generation because they produced a quality, tasty, and nutritious product, while providing a reasonable profit and decent living. During the 1980s and 90s, however, the business of apples and agriculture grew less appealing following consecutive years of surplus production that drove down profits, increasing production costs, growing consumer doubt about the safety of pesticides, a dramatic increase in the importation of apple juice concentrate (injuring domestic producers), and shrinking acreage driven by soaring real estate values.  As a result, the next generation of apple growers sought and found—often with the encouragement of their parents—more promising alternative career opportunities, leaving the future of the family business uncertain. Some orchards went out of business, and many were consolidated.

Now, there is a trend of returning to the orchard. New technologies in growing, crop protection, storage, and shipping have enhanced the industry’s efficiency and ability to produce a premium product enjoyed the world over. Additionally, the continued national focus on nutrition, sustainability, and “buy local” have kept apples a ­consumer favorite.Even so, there is still that question about who will lead.

New leadership development initiative

Heeding the concerns of American apple leaders, USApple recently launched the National Apple Industry Leadership Initiative. The program is designed to equip the next generation of American apple growers, and those involved with other aspects of the industry, with an understanding of federal regulatory and legislative apple issues, as well as apple marketing strategies, and to provide an opportunity to learn from peers and apple leaders from around the country.

The goals are to:

  • Establish a credible, comprehensive, long-term leadership development program that prepares future apple leaders for productive involvement with the U.S. Apple Association, state apple associations, and the overall American apple industry.
  • Provide orientation, understanding, and encouragement in public policy issues affecting the U.S. apple industry.
  • Foster fellowship and cooperative working relationships across U.S. apple-growing regions through discussions about key apple industry issues, processes, trends, research and activities.
  • Identify and develop future potential leaders for the apple industry.

Young apple growers who are at the start of their career through approximately age 35 are eligible to participate. Young growers involved in apple packing, shipping, ­processing, and marketing are also encouraged to join the program.

Creation of this new apple industry leadership program was inspired by the Young Growers Alliance, a new generation of specialty-crop growers seeking to develop progressive approaches for meeting future growing and marketing challenges through educational opportunities, community involvement, field trips, and networking events. Launched in Pennsylvania in 2005 under the auspices of the Pennsylvania State University Fruit Research and Extension Center, the group explores the latest trends in orchard management, care, and research in areas such as sustainable and organic fruit production, orchard automation, and pest control, as well as contemporary marketing strategies and policy issues.

Kickoff

USApple’s National Apple Industry Leadership Initiative kicked off in conjunction with Capitol Hill Day, an annual USApple event that brings apple growers from around the country to Washington, D.C., to meet with their respective congressional representatives. The day began with an Issues Breakfast featuring an address from Representative Fred Upton (Republican, Michigan), followed by a full day of Congressional visits with the young growers’ respective state apple delegation. Activities concluded with an evening reception with apple leaders, an address from Representative Dan Maffei (Democrat, New York) and dinner with USApple officers.

Young grower guests attended USApple board committee meetings the following day, as well as the USApple Spring Leadership Luncheon keynoted by USDA Assistant Secretary Kathleen Madigan.

Ten young growers from major apple-growing states participated in the inaugural events: Brett Anderson and Roger Umlor from Michigan; Robert Brown and Joseph Porpiglia, New York; Rachel Crane and Josh Koempel, Washington; Casey Darrow, ­Vermont; Sidney Kuhn and Ben Wenk, Pennsylvania; and Aaron Libby, Maine. Candidates were identified by local USApple board members. Katie Ellis, specialty crops innovation educator at Pennsylvania State University and program coordinator for the Young Growers Alliance, also participated. Sponsors of the events included Belle ­Harvest Sales and Jack Brown Produce, Michigan; J.P. Sullivan Company, Massachusetts; Knouse Foods, Pennsylvania, New York Apple Sales; and Tree Top, Washington.

From all accounts, the monumental gathering was an inspiring success. USApple looks forward to growing this very important and valuable program. We hope to ­organize similar activities around the 2010 Outlook Conference and August board meeting, and events beyond that.

For more information, including sponsorship details, contact me or Todd Hultquist, USApple director of communications and membership, at (800) 781-4443 or nfoster@usapple.org.