Laura Mrachek works to make a difference in the tree fruit industry.
Laura Mrachek, retiring president of the Washington State Horticultural Association, likes change.
So, when she predicts that orchardists are going to have to do things differently in the future, she sees the positive side of that.
“There’s a lot of change in the industry, and it’s a very exciting time to be in this industry because we will look different in the next couple of years,” she said. “We’re going to need to be different, because farming the way we used to farm and making decisions the way we used to make them isn’t working any more, based on the economic condition of the industry. In the next couple of years, this industry’s going to look totally different.”
She hopes to see a change in the marketing and sales structure of the tree fruit industry so that, while making a profit can never be guaranteed, the industry will be more bankable.
She believes the reverse auction concept, where suppliers take whatever price retailers want to give them, has been so damaging to the industry that it doesn’t have integrity in its sales position.
“You cannot demand that people grow more and better for less,” she said. “The market thinks we have little factories out here, and we’re trying our hardest to make sure our orchards are little apple and cherry factories.”
For example, cherry growers, who have never had to thin their crops before, are now thinning with hands and rakes, she said. “We’re doing all kinds of extraordinary things, and we will continue to do so, but there has to be something in it, or we’re sliding another step back.”
As Hort Association president, Mrachek has been part of the team that put together the upcoming annual meeting program, whose theme is “Resilient Growers; Facing Challenges, Leading Changes.”
The resilient grower, she says, is one who has the confidence and the patience, even when under great stress, to work at seeing things clearly and then to develop a plan to do something about it, however painful that might be.
“This story about the resilient grower is a personal story,” Mrachek said. She and her husband, Mike, operate several businesses—two testing laboratories, apple and cherry orchards, vineyards, and a winery. Like many other cherry growers, they suffered from a short crop in 2008 and low prices in 2009, when the industry average return for cherries was just over 30 cents a pound. “That’s disastrous,” she said.
But it also prompts changes. She likes to quote Thomas Jefferson who said: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
The Mracheks have their core principles—integrity, accountability, and financial responsibility—which are generally unyielding, but they also have an adaptive style of operating their businesses to respond to challenges and opportunities. “Every year, we’re a new business,” she said.
“I think this weak economy is a strategic opportunity,” she added. “The last couple of years have been very critical in the financial health of the industry. It’s forcing everyone to look at what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and their return economically as well as psychologically. Is it feeding you, or are you feeding it?”
In the future, growers will need to run tighter operations and employ the right people to create efficiencies. “It’s going to be increasingly technical and complicated, and so it’s going to be a lot about the right people,” she said. “I think growers will be looking at their teams of employees with higher expectations than ever. There’s going to be a lot of digital interfacing around the globe with other growers; there’s going to be information sharing that’s going to boggle the current grower’s mind. So, if they’re not wired, they’re late.”
Mrachek, who is 55, said when her generation came into the tree fruit industry 30 years ago, it was a changing of the guard. She sees that happening again, with a number of young industry leaders now serving on the Hort Association board.
“It really does feel like young captains,” she said. “They are men of action. They’re not tolerant of lengthy meetings with no substance and no action. They’re an impatient group. I think you have to be very impatient. There has to be a sense of urgency to move the needle to make a difference, and to make a change, and leave a legacy.”
Mrachek says she brought to the job of president her business perspective, as well as a sense of urgency to get things done. She is ambitious in everything she does and has high expectations of herself as well as others.
“The pressure’s on to perform—not disappoint—and be more than what you promised,” she said. “I always put too much on my plate. I live that way. It doesn’t matter where I am, when I’m in that room, I’m 110 percent there. I just love to dream and to be around people who like to think outside the box and see the potential and other applications that may work for our industry. All that fresh perspective is just invigorating. I’m annoying to some, because I’m insatiable.”
As she became Hort’s first female president a year ago, she already had big plans. One, which arose from her personal frustrations as an orchardist, was to reduce the burden of multiple food safety and sustainability audits on the Washington tree fruit industry with a program called GRAS2P (Growers Response to Agricultural, Safe, and Sustainable Practices). It’s an industry-specific program that prepares growers for audits and is benchmarked to GlobalGAP and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Good Agricultural Practices. The association obtained $195,000 in funding for GRAS2P through the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.
As GRAS2P has evolved over the past year, it has become much more than she first envisioned. “It’s engaging us in an opportunity to help the growers, to offer some efficiencies to their farm operations,” she said. “It’s so much more than we envisioned it to be in terms of its importance to our industry in the long run.”
Mrachek said they hoped initially to have a significant number of growers go through the preaudit process during the 2009 harvest, but it’s taken most of the year to develop and build the program. Just a few growers have been certified. “Our time frame was very ambitious,” she reflected. “So, we’re learning from that small group and we’re really looking forward to the effort of bringing in a larger group next year.”
She hopes that eventually 80 percent of the orchardists in the state will be enrolled.
Though building the GRAS2P program has consumed much of Mrachek’s presidential year, she’s pleased with an effort to bring more cohesion between industry organizations with the move of the Hort Association, the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, and the Good Fruit Grower’s Wenatchee office into the Washington Apple Commission’s Wenatchee headquarters. She expects to see further changes in that direction.
“Our industry will see consolidation in associations for efficiency and to unify political presentation,” she said.
One of her other objectives has been to solidify the Hort Association’s regulatory affairs program with the hiring of a staff member before the next Washington legislative session. She’d like to shift from the industry’s defensive posture of “keeping the wolves from the door,” and move to a more proactive stance that involves creating alliances.
“I think we got a fair bit done,” she said, as she reflected on the year, though it’s less than she envisioned. “In many respects, that’s good because my impatience often needs the tempering of other people who join me and create a much more thoughtful process around it.”
She thinks that makes a better process.
She will continue to be involved with GRAS2P over the next couple of years, while trying to focus more on her businesses than she’s been able to do in the past year, but catching up on rest isn’t in her plans. “Sleeping’s overrated,” she said.
“It’s kind of like if you don’t vote, don’t gripe,” she explained. “If you don’t participate, don’t complain. The opportunities are there.”