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Mark Holtzinger steps into the top leadership position of a statewide tree fruit organization at a time when growers and packers are happy with the state of affairs—prices are healthy, orchard land values are up, consumption of fruit is up, and fruit quality is good. The list of positives goes on.

"It’s so good right now to be in the tree fruit deal that everyone is almost giddy," said the 2008 president of the Washington State Horticultural Association. Holtzinger just ended a 25-year career with Holtzinger Fruit Company in Yakima, Washington. "It’s good to see  growers that gambled and sacrificed so much now being paid for their efforts."

And while there is reason to be excited about the state of industry, there are plenty of challenges facing tree fruit growers and shippers. Water, pesticide regulation, labor, and regulatory issues are concerns that continually challenge the industry, Holtzinger said. Labor is the top priority right now for industry, he said, noting that solutions to labor shortages, which include reforming the H2-A temporary worker program and overhauling immigration policies, require involvement at the federal level.

Hort priorities

A major priority for the Hort Association in the coming year will be implementing the pest management transition project, a new program coordinated by the Hort Association that is supported by state and industry funds. The project, designed to help growers transition to new technologies for insect pest management, is timely since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that Guthion (azinphos-methyl) will be phased out by 2012. The Hort Association will be working with Washington State University researchers and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in the outreach and education component of the pest management transition project.

On the legislative front, the Hort Association will work to protect statutes that regulate farm labor contractors in the state. Legislation was introduced last year that would have weakened a grower’s ability to use farm labor contractors. As more growers look to the H-2A guest-worker program to help fill worker shortages, it becomes important to protect the current farm labor contractor statute, said Jim Hazen, Hort Association executive director. "If farm labor contractor statutes are jeopardized, it would jeopardize our access to the H-2A program. A big focus in 2008 will be to protect that statute."

The Hort Association will also be reviewing its government affairs program to beef up involvement in the regulatory arena. The program, which targeted certain tree fruit companies to fund Hort Association staff focused solely on regulatory issues, may be expanded to bring in more industry supporters.

Hazen highlighted two examples of success from dedicating staff to work on regulatory issues—bringing common sense into heat stress regulations and minimizing industry impact from regulations dealing with rollover protection equipment on tractors.

Hort strengths

One of the strengths of the Hort Association, according to Holtzinger, is the legislative and regulatory prowess of its leader, Hazen. "We need to play up and advance the strength of our executive director in Olympia," he said, adding that he hopes to have the –association put more effort in Olympia and in the hort’s educational activities during his term.

Diversity of the association’s board of directors is also a strength, Holtzinger said, adding that a board of 12 that represents all fruit-growing districts guides the 3,000-member organization. Additionally, several of the younger generation are represented on the board.

"Any organization that is voluntary has to justify its existence, and that’s always challenging," he said, noting that the group has limited funds and must carefully target and prioritize issues and activities. Their current focus is education and state legislative and regulatory issues. The group’s annual meeting, which has become a forum for key industry issues and the latest horticultural and postharvest research, is an example of its educational outreach.

Holtzinger added that Washington’s tree fruit industry has the luxury of supporting many successful organizations, groups that work very well together. "The Hort Association has been around a long time, and I want to make sure it provides the expectations and needs of industry. We want to include larger companies and not just small growers.

"Farmers are farmers because they are independent. But we need a cooperative effort to accomplish –anything," he said. "The challenge is that there are fewer and fewer growers, and they become larger and larger in order to survive. Farmers want to control their own destiny and take care of their own problems, but that can be problematic, at times."

Holtzinger said there are many positive things going for the tree fruit industry right now. Per capita consumption of apples and cherries has gone up, apples and cherries are recognized for their health and nutrition benefits, and the competitive "bloom" has come off China.

"It’s good to know that the Pacific Northwest has a competitive advantage to producing the best quality tree fruit—as long as we have labor and water. It’s always good to appreciate those blessings," he said.