(Jan. 14) YAKIMA, Wash. — When Willard Scott reads off the names of people turning 100 on the “Today” show, he frequently reports that many of them credit their longevity to healthy living.

This year, a fruit cooperative that grows some of the cherries, pears and apples that help people enjoy healthy diets is celebrating its 100th birthday as well.

Frank McCarthy, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Snokist Growers, said his company has been successful for 100 years through the integrity of its board members, the ability of grower members to make business decisions and a strategy of operating in both the fresh and canned markets.

“The level of integrity historically of our board members is high,” McCarthy said. “They really take their fiduciary responsibility seriously. I’ve witnessed board decisions that I know hurt some board members individually, but they voted for it anyway because it was the right thing to do for the company. We’re a co-op, and people on the board are unselfish and keep the interests of Snokist first.”

ALL IN A NAME

The Snokist name doesn’t extend all the way back to 1903, when the roots of the company took hold. A series of mergers and name changes over the years finally led up to the Snokist name in 1967.

But it all started back in 1903, when one of the companies that would eventually become Snokist, the Yakima Valley Horticultural Union, was founded.

Eight years later, another company that would fold into what became Snokist was founded — the Yakima Fruit Growers Association.

The two companies operated independently for decades. But overproduction and consolidation aren’t phenomena limited to the 1990s and the turn of the 21st century. And the predecessors of Snokist had to deal with those pressures throughout their existence.

In 1918, the 7-year-old Yakima Fruit Growers Association changed its name to Big Y. Then, in 1958, the Yakima Valley Horticultural Union became Blue Ribbon Growers. Seven years later, Blue Ribbon and Big Y merged, adopting the name Snokist two years later.

But it was about the time of the merger that the companies that became Snokist made a major decision that continues to influence the company today, McCarthy said.

“They decided to be in two businesses: canned as well as fresh,” McCarthy said. “It was a brilliant strategy. Like any produce grower, production was dependent on weather. To go either way with the fruit made a huge difference. Throughout the last 30-plus years, there would be years when the cannery did well and the fresh side didn’t and years when the fresh side did well and the cannery didn’t.”

Today the company cans under its own label. But most of its canning is private label, McCarthy said. Snokist is one of the biggest pear canners in the world, and it has a major share of the West Coast applesauce business as well. It also cans cherries.

“The cannery adds a dimension of financial stability and staying power,” he said.

Cherry of a deal: Cherries would prove to be another major milestone for the company. Snokist is now one of the largest packers of fresh cherries in the U.S., McCarthy said. Three years ago, it opened its third cherry packinghouse — a $4 million facility in nearby Grandview.

About 12 years ago, Snokist expanded its cherry business by focusing on rainiers. The rainier cherry had traditionally been used mainly as a pollinator because it was easily bruised and sensitive to packing and shipping.

“Snokist developed a field packing program a dozen years ago, and now we’ve seen the rainier take over the light, sweet cherry market,” McCarthy said.

FULL SPEED AHEAD

McCarthy said Snokist won’t rest on its laurels. The company plans to expand its grower base over the next few years. And it will install a new apple packing line by mid-August in one of its Yakima plants. That will allow the Grandview plant to specialize in pears and organic products and the Yakima plant to handle all conventional apples.

Snokist, which already enjoys a solid export program, also plans to develop more foreign sales.

“I see the focus shifting from the Far East to North America,” McCarthy said. “The Far East business is a whole lot of fujis, and the Chinese are coming on like a freight train.”

The company is celebrating its centennial with an ad campaign, a new brochure and recognition from Washington state.

In mid-February, the secretary of Washington state will present Snokist with a plaque.

And those who attended the Produce Marketing Association’s convention in New Orleans in October may have noticed Snokist ratcheting up its celebration. Its booth bore a sign that said: “We’re turning 100. We like to think it’s because of our healthy diet of Washington fruit.”