Chris Britton’s first priority as the 2013-2014 chair of the nation’s apple industry organization—hiring a new executive officer—seems relatively easy compared with the other top issues challenging apple growers and packers.
The new president and chief executive, Jim Bair, will begin duties on January 6. Bair has served for more than 20 years as the vice president of governmental affairs for the North American Millers Association, a trade group based in the Washington, D.C., area representing millers of wheat, corn, oats, and rye in the United States and Canada.
He graduated from Iowa State University in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and has received several continuing education certificates from Notre Dame and San Jose State University.
More than 100 names were considered and 15 candidates interviewed by the selection committee since last summer when the search committee began looking to replace Nancy Foster, president and chief executive officer, who left at the end of August.
The search committee was chaired by Mike Wade of Washington. Other members of the committee included Mark Nicholson, New York; Bill Dodd, Ohio; Julia Rothwell, Michigan; and John Rice of Pennsylvania.
Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, said he was delighted that Bair was selected.
“I’ve known him for a number of years, working on policy issues in Washington, D.C., and I think he will be an outstanding leader of the national association,” he said.
California grower Britton, an affable, fourth-generation family farmer from Modesto, California, was elected chair of U.S. Apple Association during its annual apple outlook conference held in August.
He’s part of Britton Konynenburg Partners, a partnership created 40 years ago between his father, John, and Derk Van Konynenburg. The partnership now includes sons of the partners, Britton and Paul Van Konynenburg.
The two-family partnership manages about 1,400 acres of apples, apricots, cherries, grapes, peaches, walnuts, and almonds, and provides farm and real estate management services.
Good Fruit Grower visited with Britton, 45, during apple harvest to learn more about him, his goals as chair of USApple, and the organization’s priorities in 2014.
BK Partners produces primarily four varieties of apples—Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, and Cripps Pink—and a few other minor varieties. In recent years, Britton has overseen the conversion to the V-trellis tree training system in all of their orchards, including apricots, cherries, peaches, and apples, as a way to increase yields and improve color. The partnership is also developing a new line of super-sweet apricot varieties called CandyCots.
Britton’s involvement with the national apple group began more than a decade ago when former USApple chair Mark Lewis, a California grower and shipper, encouraged him to get involved. Britton had recently returned to the family farm partnership after ten years of running his own stockbrokerage firm.
“Mark thought the smarts of those on the board of directors would rub off on me,” he said. Britton has been a board member since 2002 and has held the offices of secretary and vice chair.
“When I joined the board, I was young and had no experience in growing apples, so I kept my mouth shut and listened and learned. I got way more out of serving than I gave. It was a great learning experience, and I’ve enjoyed visiting board members across the country to see how things are done differently. The board is a great bunch of guys, and they’ve all been a great help to me.”
What kind of leader was the committee looking for?
“We’re looking for someone who can come in and be an effective face and voice for the industry,” he said. “There will be lots of changes in the next few years in how our industry works. The last four to five years have been a very profitable time, but we always have up and down cycles. We need someone to take us into the next cycle and grow the business, grow the industry.”
“Jim is smart, great with people, and we believe he will work well with U.S. Apple Association’s existing staff,” Britton said in early December shortly after the selection was made. “He appears to be a stayer, not one who moves around, and he’s not looking at this position to use as a stepping stone.”
Will there be other management changes at USApple?
“The current staff is extremely competent, and Diane Kurrle has done a great job as interim CEO, managing the organization and office,” Britton said. “Part of the executive search process was about finding the right leader that will mesh with the current staff and best utilize their talents, while bringing about their growth.”
How is USApple funded and what does its funding future look like?
“Obviously, there’s a real concern about where funding will come from in the future,” he said. “We are looking for a leader who can be creative in how to fund the organization’s activities, and not just tax the rich.”
USApple represents all segments of the apple industry, from grower to shipper to processor to allied industries. Membership dues represent about 80 percent of the group’s annual $2 million budget. Other income includes sponsorships and revenue generated from USApple’s annual meeting.
Of the $1.6 million in income from membership dues, nearly 90 percent or $1.4 million comes from 14 state apple commissions or organizations that pay dues based on a five-year average of volume of apples produced. Washington State currently pays about 60 percent of the total generated by the 14-state apple groups, or more than $840,000.
“USApple can’t do everything and be everything for everybody,” Britton said. “That’s why you need a strategic focus. You need to be good at the things that you do because you can’t chase all of the fires. You just can’t raise enough money to do everything.”
What are the top three USApple priorities in 2014?
“Immigration, immigration, and immigration,” he said. “Immigration reform is still the number-one issue we are focused on getting passed. Without adequate supply of skilled workers to harvest the crop, we don’t have apples to sell.
“Right behind immigration is dealing with the new Food Safety Modernization Act. I don’t know if all growers are aware of how ominous it may turn out to be,” said Britton, adding that USApple has been very active on the issue and submitted detailed comments on the proposed regulations as part of the public comment process.
The third legislative priority is getting a Farm Bill passed, he said. Previous Farm Bills have funded specialty crop research, national clean plant programs, and the Market Access Program designed to boost agricultural exports.
“The MAP funding alone makes the Farm Bill a huge issue on our agenda. We need to expand and grow foreign markets and strengthen those that are already open.”
How does a national group effectively represent everyone?
“USApple gives us the ability to speak with one voice on Capitol Hill,” he said. “However, speaking with one voice requires a conscientious effort to suppress what your individual wants and needs are in working for the greater good. There are issues in Washington and California that East Coast growers may not have to deal with, but often their issues, like the brown marmorated stinkbug, become our issues. We all breathe the same air. Your problems are my problems. At times, you have to speak with one voice and suppress what might be right for you while working for the greater good.
“I’ve never seen an organization more dedicated to industry unity. I believe that comes from leadership prior to me—Bill Dodd, Bruce Grim, and others dedicated to speaking with one voice.”
Are there similarities between the stock market and agriculture?
“There’s a great amount of risk and market fluctuations in both the stock market and agriculture. Both can be influenced by outside forces,” Britton said, adding that in his first year as a stockbroker, he wanted to quit and return to the family farm.
“I was new and had my own firm in Modesto. In that first year, things weren’t going very well. In fact, I was starving.
“When I told my dad I wanted to come back to the farm, he said, no, I couldn’t come back right then, so I stuck it out for ten years, eventually enjoying what I was doing. When I did come back, it was on my terms. I’m so thankful that my dad made me wait before coming back.” •