(June 13) Stemilt Growers Inc. plans to expand its organic fruit production by as much as 20% a year, and the Wenatchee, Wash., grower-shipper has hired longtime grower Harold Ostenson to help.

“He has a real strong reputation in the organic industry in the state of Washington,” marketing director Roger Pepperl said. “Anybody that’s in the organic deal knows him. His connections with the organic grower base are very strong because of that.”

Ostenson has been growing tree fruit in eastern Washington for 30 years, and he began switching his orchards to organic in the late 1970s.

In 2002, he led a group of organic growers that challenged the Washington Apple Commission’s practice of charging all growers 25 cents a box for cooperative marketing because the organization wasn’t using the money to promote organics. A judge’s ruling stopped the collection of assessments for promotions in 2003, and the commission downsized its staff.

“He was well known before that,” Pepperl said.

Ostenson, who was unavailable for comment, is a partner in Pacific Organic LLC, George, Wash., but it was unclear how much longer Ostenson would retain his interest in the packinghouse. Ostenson owns the land the packinghouse is on and 49% of the company.

Greg Holzman, president of Pacific Organic Produce, San Francisco, and managing partner of Pacific Organic LLC, owns 51% of the packing facility.

Holzman said he dismissed Ostenson as general manager March 8 and was in the process of diluting Ostenson’s interest in the company.

Line manager Mike Vanlith, who declined comment, was promoted to general manager.

Pacific Organic packed 500,000 boxes of apples in 2004 as well as apricots, cherries and other fruit from 30 growers. Ostenson, who joined Stemilt May 23, said in a press release that he thought some of Pacific Organic’s growers would follow him to Stemilt.

“Let’s put it this way,” Pepperl said, “we would have open arms for them.”

Ostenson’s role with Stemilt had not yet been given a title, but Pepperl said Ostenson would work with growers to ensure the best methods were being used and to help with postharvest practices in addition to expanding Stemilt’s grower base.

"We see our business increasing 20% a year at the retail end," Pepperl said of Stemilt’s organic production.

Last year, Stemilt shipped about 1 million 40-pound cartons of organic apples, 100,000 boxes of organic pears and 75,000 boxes of organic cherries.

Pepperl said he expected lower apple yields statewide this fall after last year’s record crop, but he still expected Stemilt to pack 1.3 million boxes of organic apples and pears this season.