As the new president, John Verbrugge will lead Washington’s Horticultural Association into more involvement with state regulatory issues.
New Hort President John Verbrugge represents a change that’s taking place within the 105-year-old Washington State Horticultural Association as well as the state’s tree fruit industry. It’s a generational shift occurring in many family farms and in the organizations that represent those farmers.
At 36, Verbrugge is among the youngest to serve as president of the Hort Association. But even more telling is a look at the organization’s board of directors—about half of the directors are the same generation as the new president. And that’s in an industry where the average age of farmers is around 55 years.
Verbrugge, in charge of orchard operations at Valley Fruit in Wapato, is an active partner with his older brother Peter who serves as CEO. Their great-grandparents were Dutch immigrants, settling near Wapato in the lower Yakima Valley to grow potatoes. Their grandfather Martin, Sr., diversified into tree fruit, and their father, Martin, Jr., began the packing plant in 1982 with another partner. Today, the Verbrugge family is the sole owner of Valley Fruit, a grower-packer of tree fruit.
John said during a recent interview in his office that the generational change seems to have happened in the last few years. “Most on the Hort Association board are now my generation. It’s time the younger generation step into industry leadership positions. After all, it’s the younger generation’s future we’re talking about.”
Though the industry issues that the board deals with don’t seem to change, he has noticed a different philosophy between the generations on the board. As people get older, they are not as progressive and think more in terms of saving money than spending it, he said. “The younger generation is more willing to take risks and willing to try new things. But we need the older generation to rein back the younger generation… Everyone has been a younger generation at some point. It’s your philosophy that changes over time.”
One of the changes at the Hort Association that Verbrugge will encourage as president is a refocus of its efforts in state governmental affairs.
The group is active in state legislative issues, but Verbrugge wants to see the industry become more involved in regulatory issues, also. “That’s where we’re seeing a lot of rules and regulations coming from that don’t make a lot of sense. Farmers are overburdened with rules and regulations,” he said, noting that often, it’s silly regulation stemming from one accident that results in a binder full of rules covering things that employers are already doing.
“Labor and pesticides are industry’s two major issues. They always have been and they always will be,” he said. “Labor and pesticides are the issues that are like little campfires that constantly keep popping up.”
He said there is strong support to add a regulatory affairs position to augment work of the Hort Association’s Executive Director Bruce Grim and lobbyist Jim Halstrom. Work to develop the position started a few years ago, but was put on hold to allow for transition when the organization changed executive directors.
The regulatory affairs position is a high priority for the organization, Grim agreed in a phone interview. He is in the process of identifying how best to fill the position and hopes to have it filled in time for the 2010 legislative session.
“I’d like to see the Hort Association do more fact sheets on issues, providing facts to the regulators and legislators,” Verbrugge said, adding he believes it would be valuable for industry to make a statement about what it needs to survive and remain profitable.
He also thinks industry needs to continue developing relationships with representatives from both political parties. The Hort Association annually sponsors Tree Fruit Day at the state’s capitol in February, bringing together industry spokespeople and legislators to discuss industry problems. Last year, about 25 industry representatives visited more than 50 legislators and agency directors, delivering 300 gift boxes of fruit.
Orchard tours and packing house visits are another way to further develop relationships and educate lawmakers, bringing westside representatives to eastern Washington to help them better understand tree fruit production.
One of the Hort Association’s biggest projects of late has been GRAS2P (Grower Response to Agricultural Safe and Sustainable Practices), a grower-based program for audit readiness and establishment of standards for food safety and sustainability within the Washington tree fruit industry. A state grant funded a pilot program of training sessions held this past summer and the development of a workbook to help growers pass audits commonly required by retailers.
“Doing food safety sounds painful, but once you go through it, it’s mostly paperwork,” Verbrugge said. “It’s things that you’re already doing but you didn’t write it down.”
He also thinks GRAS2P will help tree fruit growers document what they are doing in regards to sustainability and food safety issues and define the nebulous buzzword “sustainability” in their terms.
While the food-safety project is important, Verbrugge doesn’t want the association to lose focus of its primary objectives of state legislative advocacy work and education, two areas he said are interrelated. If the Hort Association is more effective in the state regulatory and legislative arenas, he believes that more industry members will support the organization and even further strengthen its voice.