WENATCHEE, Wash. — The Northwest tree-fruit industry must speak with one voice to gain more influence over national and international policy.

Kicking off the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting Dec. 5, president West Mathison proposed an umbrella structure over the industry’s numerous organizations to provide more clear leadership on vital issues from immigration and labor policy to trade and food safety.

Washington industry leader stresses need for teamwork“Any time you have more than one person doing a job in your own business, the outcome costs more and the outcome isn’t as good,” said Mathison, also president of Wenatchee-based Stemilt Growers.

WSHA, Northwest Horticultural Council, Washington Growers League, various commodity marketing groups and traffic-reporting organizations all have different focuses but also varying degrees of overlap, which he said is at the root of the industry’s fragmented and undisciplined efforts to date.

Despite ongoing work to pull together as much as possible, the current structure hasn’t always been effective, he says.

“I’ve seen industries with less economic influence but were better organized and created more influence than the tree fruit industry,” Mathison said.

He’s fielded calls from the U.S. Apple Association for his insight on labor and issues after the national organization received differing positions from Northwest members.

“If they think that, what do our legislators think?” Mathison said. “Anytime our industry is not united, legislators focus elsewhere where there is unity.”

Mathison envisions a leadership board made up of an industry cross-section to direct efforts through committees focused on political and regulatory efforts, education and communication, statistics and technical issues.

The statistics group would funnel price and volume reports through a single outlet. The technical group would pull together experts on issues such as food safety and phytosanitary requirements.

Existing organizations would remain intact.

“Everyone is looking at the challenges ahead and saying ‘How do we best organize for these,’” Mathison said. “I don’t know where this will end up. I just know we need to do something.”

Reaction so far has been positive, but the process could take two years or more to produce results, he said.

“My purpose was to start the conversation.”