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Karen Lewis says her Latino father would be very proud.

Karen Lewis says her Latino father would be very proud.

Karen Lewis, Washington State University tree fruit regional extension specialist, has received the first annual Latino Leadership Award from the Washington State Horticultural Association.

The award was established at the suggestion of retiring association president West Mathison to recognize Latino people working in the tree fruit industry or industry people who have contributed to the Latino community.

Leo Garcia, bilingual agricultural education director at Wenatchee Valley College, who announced the award during the Hort Association’s annual meeting in December, said Lewis was instrumental in establishing an educational session in Spanish during the annual meeting 18 years ago. This has become an important part of the meeting.

Lewis said she proposed the Spanish-language session after realizing that fruit growers struggled to provide good training for their workers on safety and day-to-day activities and that comprehension on the part of employees was low.

“Quality materials and methods were available, but we just couldn’t escape the language barrier,” she recalled. “A grower could show a safety video, but could not lead a discussion or answer questions after the video. A grower could tell a crew what he wanted done—like prune this and not that—but he couldn’t explain why.”

Lewis lived on an orchard at the time and saw firsthand how this impacted both growers and employees. She decided to look for a way to provide education and information to the workforce in Spanish. “At the very least, health and safety information needed to be delivered in their native language,” she said.

About a hundred people attended the first employee training session in Spanish in 1993, which was held during the afternoon after the main hort meeting concluded. Afterwards, an older man in the audience told Lewis he was going to mark on his calendar that that was the day that the Spanish-speaking workers became members of the tree fruit industry.

The following year, the Spanish-language session was integrated into the main meeting and 600 people packed into the full-day session. A young man approached Lewis and pointed to the speaker, Victor Bueno, at the podium. “I want to be doing what he’s doing in a few years,” he told her. “How do I get there, and can you help me?”
 Over the last 18 years, the industry has seen Hispanic employees become leaders, and there are now several Spanish language educational opportunities available through Wenatchee Valley College, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and the tree fruit industry, she pointed out.

Lewis’s current extension work focuses on the integration of horticulture, people, engineering and economics. Projects she’s involved in include mechanical thinning, harvest assist technologies, autonomous platforms and automated caliper counters for nurseries.

She grew up in Panama and moved to Arizona to complete her senior year of high school.  She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture from the University of Arizona and joined WSU in 1987 as extension educator for Grant and Adams counties.

Receiving the Latino Leadership Award was one of the greatest honors of her life, she said, and her Latino father would be very proud.

She received the association’s Women’s Leadership Through Service Award in 1997 and the Silver Apple Award in 2008. She received the International Fruit Tree Association’s Outstanding Extension award in 2011.