(March 29) A revamped Washington Asparagus Commission, Pasco, hopes to put its troubles behind and help bring back healthy markets to the grower-shippers it represents.

The first major change at the commission, which has been threatened with extinction by grower-shippers who think they aren’t getting their money’s worth, was in personnel.

Alan Schreiber has succeeded Margaret Webring as administrator. Kevin Bouchey, a grower of several commodities in Washington and past chairman of the Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake, was elected chairman for 2002-2003.

Those changes at the top are matched by aggressive new lobbying, research and marketing efforts by the commission, said the organization’s marketing director, Dan Petek.

“We’re moving in a new direction,” Petek said. “We have a whole new administration, and we think we have a very aggressive organization.”

MORE THAN DEFENSE

Whereas in recent years the goal of the commission was to “maintain” the Washington asparagus industry, Petek said, the new version wants to return grower-shippers to the healthy markets they enjoyed in the early ’90s.

Pushing the health benefits of asparagus is one way the commission is trying to do that. The commission is helping fund studies by the American Health Foundation, Valhalla, N.Y., that examine the role of the antioxidant glutathione in fighting cancer.

Asparagus contains more glutathione, thought to be derived only from natural sources, than any other fresh fruit or vegetable. The commission has applied for a $440,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md., to help pay for the research and is pursuing other funding sources.

On the promotional front, commission members have fanned out to terminal markets in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and other cities to spread the word about Washington asparagus, distributing point-of-purchase information, photographs and other promotional materials. A new public relations kit for media members is another key component of the commission’s marketing campaign, Petek said.

LOBBYING ISSUES

The commission’s new lobbying efforts include joining fellow growers and industry officials in Michigan and California to support the repeal of a tariff that protects Peruvian asparagus exports to the U.S.

But the commission also is working with state government officials in Washington, particularly on minimum wage bills. Washington’s $6.90 minimum wage is higher than any other state’s, Petek said.

The commission is arguing that the current minimum wage formula is weighted in favor of high-rent Seattle, and is too high for the asparagus industry to bear. Petek also said the high minimum wage lowers migrant farm workers’ incentive to work.

The commission is lobbying for an exemption from the law for the asparagus industry.

Looking to the future, Bouchey, the new chairman, said he and the new administration are committed to putting the past behind them and to doing what they can to turn things around for the grower-shippers they represent.

“We need to be proactive,” Bouchey said. “We have been sidelined by so many issues. We have a new administrator, a new lobbying effort, a new chair, and a firm conviction to keep an asparagus industry in Washington state.”