David Douglas will hand over the presidency of the Hort Association to Jeff Cleveringa during the association's annual meeting in Yakima, December 3–5.

David Douglas will hand over the presidency of the Hort Association to Jeff Cleveringa during the association’s annual meeting in Yakima, December 3–5.

The Washington apple industry is big business, but it’s also a family-based industry. Most of the growing and packing operations in the industry, including the largest, are family owned. And, many people in the industry are approaching retirement age. The last U.S. agriculture census showed that the average age of farmers was 57, up from 51 three decades ago.

Those are among the reasons why the main theme of the association’s annual meeting, December 3 to 5, will be succession planning, says David Douglas, retiring president of the Washington State Horticultural Association and part of the family-owned Douglas Fruit Company in Pasco, Washington.

Douglas said his family’s company was founded by his father, Bill, and uncle, John, who did a good job of making sure that members of the next generation were able to continue the business and were working in the right positions.

“I’ve always felt it’s really important for any business to have a plan, and particularly for our industry, which is mostly made up of families,” he said.

Succession planning involves not only legal and tax issues, but psychological issues, he pointed out. The older generation might not always be willing to give up control.

Motivational speaker Jolene Brown of Iowa will tackle the topic with humor in her Batjer Memorial Address entitled “Stop the Fighting on the Way to the Funeral Home.” Her presentation will be based on real-life stories gathered from years of consulting with families in agriculture. Douglas, who has heard her speak previously, said Brown should be both entertaining and thought provoking.

In the same session, Dale Foreman will moderate a panel discussing the succession planning of vertically integrated operations with West Mathison of Stemilt Growers, Robert Kershaw of Domex, ­Reggie Collins of Chelan Fruit Company, and Mark Zirkle of Rainier/Zirkle Fruit ­Company taking part. A second panel comprising Mark Stennes, Richard Thomason, Bruce Allen, and George Allan will discuss succession planning for the medium and small orchard operation.

Other speakers during the day-long succession planning session include economists, a banker, an accountant, and an attorney.

Strengths

Douglas, who was on the program committee with incoming president Jeff Cleveringa and Dr. Jim McFerson, president of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, said this year’s meeting agenda will focus on the strengths of the industry rather than the threats the industry faces.

On the second morning of the meeting, December 4, Washington State University’s new pomologist in Wenatchee (whose appointment had not been finalized at press time) will open a session on Production, Technology, Innovations, and Developments with a talk about new planting systems. At the same time, there’ll be a session on what to expect in the legislative arena after this year’s general election. Jon Wyss, of Gebbers Farms, Brewster, who is one of the speakers, is a member of the Washington Governor’s Agricultural Labor Workgroup that is putting together recommendations for a new guest-worker program to replace H-2A.

Douglas said the industry’s future depends on some sort of guest-worker program. “Right now, we have H-2A. It’s not good, but we’re doing the best we can with it.”

Food safety

Sessions on organic tree fruit production and food safety will take place on the second afternoon of the meeting. Federal Drug Administration requirements under the Food Safety Modernization Act, which Congress passed almost two years ago, are still awaited.

No one knows what the requirements are going to be or how they will be funded or enforced, Douglas said, but he believes that the industry is well positioned to comply. Walmart was among the first retailers to require an audited food safety program at the farm, and, since it is a big customer of the industry, growers complied. Hort Association’s GRAS2P program has helped many growers prepare for ­certification, Douglas said.

“We’re positioned very well as an industry to be able to address anything that comes out of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The hope is that tree fruit is treated as tree fruit, and we don’t face the same type of regulations as higher-risk commodities like leafy greens.”

Spanish

The full-day Spanish language session has become an important part of the meeting, Douglas said. It provides good information for Spanish-speaking managers at vertically integrated companies as well as for Hispanic people who are developing their own orchards. The meeting’s three concurrent closing sessions on the morning of December 5 will cover pears, cherries, and postharvest issues. Dr. Chris Watkins, horticulturist with Cornell University in New York, will discuss why Honeycrisp is so tricky to store and Dr. Carolina Torres of the ­University of Talca, Chile, will present management strategies for reducing physiological disorders and improving fruit marketability.

For the full agenda, go to www.wahort.org/events/annual-meeting.