For more than 35 years, Mike Willett has made significant contributions to the Northwest tree fruit industry, most recently as manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.
For those efforts on behalf of the industry, the Washington State Tree Fruit Association recognized Willett with its Distinguished Service Award during the group’s annual banquet on Tuesday in Yakima, Washington.
Willett quickly credited everybody he has worked with over the years for “just being cooperative,” he said. “This is to you as well.”
Willett joined WTFRC as manager in December 2015. For more than 20 years prior to joining the commission, he was vice president for scientific affairs for the Northwest Horticultural Council, representing the tree fruit industry of Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
In that capacity, he worked closely with the U.S. tree fruit industry, public and private research organizations, allied industries and regulatory agencies on a wide range of public policy issues related to pest management, pesticide policy and phytosanitary concerns that affect domestic and international trade.
From 1980 to 1996, Willett worked as a tree fruit production and pest management regional specialist with both the Oregon and Washington State University Cooperative Extension.
“He was one of the best the industry has ever had, there’s no question,” said Dan Griffin of GS Long, who presented the award along with a slideshow of photos of Willett in his college days.
A native of Detroit, Michigan, Willett lives in Yakima with his wife, Laura. They have three grown sons. Willett plans to retire in June 2019.
Silver Pear Award
For his outstanding contributions to the advancement of the pear industry, this year’s Silver Pear Award went to Ken Johnson of Oregon State University.
Johnson recalled his first research proposal 30 years ago. Now, “here I am, so thank you.”
Johnson’s research program has focused on economically important diseases of tree fruit crops, including fire blight of pear and apple. Recent fire blight projects have focused on non-antibiotic control, improved pathogen detection, and induction of acquired resistance in trees to lessen fire blight damage.
Johnson obtained his bachelor’s degree in plant health technology from the University of Minnesota and a master’s degree in plant pathology from Oregon State University.
He completed his doctorate in plant pathology in 1986 at the University of Minnesota then joined the faculty of the department of botany and plant pathology at OSU in 1988, where he has taught introductory plant pathology every fall term for 31 years.
Although not quite ready to retire, three years ago Johnson and his partner, Alexandra, bought 10 acres of Class 1 agricultural soil near the Willamette River in Albany, Oregon, and plan to grow specialty seeds, vegetables and pome fruit in their retirement years. Johnson has three grandsons under age 3, who currently think helping grandpa on the farm is a pretty swell idea.
Silver Apple Award
This year’s Silver Apple Award was presented to Ralph Broetje of Broetje Orchards.
Broetje was unable to attend the banquet due to commitments with his charitable organization but Jim Colbert of Chelan Fruit, who presented the award, said the industry has allowed he and his wife Cheryl to pursue their true passion, “to help others worldwide.”
The Broetjes bought their first orchard in Benton City, Washington, in 1968. Today, Broetje and his family manage more than 6,000 acres of apples and cherries in Benton City, Prescott and Wallula, Washington.
In 1990, the Broetjes established the Vista Hermosa Foundation, which funds international works in Mexico, Africa, India and Haiti, with a focus on investing in the development and growth of holistic, flourishing communities.
In 2008 Broetje established FirstFruits Marketing of Washington, a collaborative marking company owned by growers.
Two years later, Broetje obtained rights to grow the Opal apple, a naturally nonbrowning apple resulting from a cross between the Golden and Topaz. The Opal has been served on the International Space Station.
Latino Leadership Award
Mario Molina of Zirkle Fruit received the Latino Leadership award.
Molina was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, where he lived for 25 years. He earned the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in horticulture at the University of Chihuahua and, because job opportunities in Mexico were so limited, he decided to immigrate to the United States.
Molina began his long career in agriculture as an orchard worker in Chelan, Washington, in 1985. He later moved to Vantage, Washington, and worked for Grady Auvil, along with a group of graduates also from the University of Chihuahua.
While at the Auvil farm, Molina advanced from farm worker to crew supervisor to an assistant to the orchard foreman.
He then went to work for Zirkle Fruit, where he became an orchard manager. At Zirkle, Molina took on the challenge of becoming a safety officer and was an important contributor to the early programs and implementation of the Worker
Protection Standard and the Washington state hands-on training programs for farm workers.
Today, Molina is responsible for ensuring all Zirkle orchards are in compliance with state and federal safety regulations. He conducts worker safety training, including spray safety classes, and coordinates the hiring of hundreds of workers through the H-2A program.
“We, the Latino community, we are a very important part of the success of the industry,” Molina said.
Bruce Grimm, manager of the Marketing Associations and retired executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association, was granted a Special Recognition award.
Grimm lauded the industry for an equal-opportunity ethos that has created a “meritocracy.”
For decades, the Horticultural Association hosted the industry’s annual meeting. In 2014, the group merged with other organizations in the state to form the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.
Growers of the Year
Good Fruit Grower magazine honored the Plath family of Washington Fruit and Produce Co. of Yakima, Washington, with its annual Grower of the Year award. Read more about the family and its contributions to the industry and philanthropic efforts: Growing generations: 2018 Good Fruit Growers of the Year.
by Jonelle Mejica and Ross Courtney