The Washington State Tree Fruit Association (WSTFA) is an industry organization that represents all Washington tree fruit growers, packers, and marketers. Its three main areas of activity are collecting and distributing useful data and statistics, educating growers and packers through conferences and training programs, and engaging in advocacy with the Washington State legislature and government to help support the tree fruit industry. In this interview, WSTFA President Jon DeVaney tells Irrigation Leader about the importance of the tree fruit industry for Washington, the critical role that water supply plays in the industry’s success, and the challenges of continuing to provide vital food during the COVID‑19 pandemic.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Jon DeVaney: I started my career on Capitol Hill, working for former Congressman and House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, who represented my hometown in Washington State in the U.S. House of Representatives. When he was first elected in 1994, I interned in his office. I was already back in Washington, DC, for graduate school and ended up working for Congressman Hastings for a number of years, both in DC and in his district office in Yakima. I eventually left his staff to work for the tree fruit industry and, in 2009, took a position with what was then the Yakima Valley Growers and Shippers Association, which represented the fruit packers of the Yakima Valley. In 2014, after a lengthy negotiation process, that organization merged with three other tree-fruit-industry organizations to form the WSTFA. Previously, the industry had had multiple organizations with overlapping memberships and slightly varying missions. There was a packers’ organization in the Yakima Valley; a packers’ organization in the Wenatchee Valley in north-central Washington; a statewide tree fruit growers’ organization called the Growers Clearinghouse; and a broader organization called the Washington State Horticultural Association, which included both growers and packers and was focused more on government affairs than on logistics and reporting. To better coordinate the activities of the industry, we negotiated a merger of those four organizations. It has been successful in improving coordination and reducing overhead operating costs.
Irrigation Leader: What are your main activities today?
Jon DeVaney: We have three main functions. First, we collect statistics and data and report them to the industry so that our members can make informed business decisions on crop size, pricing different fruit varieties, and similar matters. Second, we do education and training, both special training programs on topics like food safety and worker safety and broader, industrywide conferences, such as the annual meeting we held in December 2020. Because of the ongoing COVID‑19 pandemic, the meeting had to be held online—the first time in more than a century that the organization did not have an in-person meeting. Third, we do government affairs and public relations work for the industry. We represent our members on state and local policy issues and we support national organizations’ work on federal policy issues as well.
Irrigation Leader: Who are your members?
Jon DeVaney: Our members are all the growers, packers, and marketers of tree fruit in Washington State. Our members are the legal entities and firms themselves. Our dues are collected primarily from those packers and marketers. The packers’ dues are factored into the packing charges they collect from growers, so we consider the growers to have paid indirectly—we don’t ask them to pay additional dues. We consider every grower in our state to be an eligible member, and we encourage them to choose to be on our distribution list.
Irrigation Leader: Would you give us an overview of the importance of the tree fruit industry for Washington State?
Jon DeVaney: Tree fruit makes up 25–30 percent of the approximately $10 billion in farm-gate ag value in the state of Washington every year. It’s one of our biggest crop sectors. It is labor intensive, so it employs a lot of people in the state as well. Tree fruit is used to create a number of processed products, such as apple juice and applesauce, so it is also responsible for a substantial industry in our state and a lot of added economic value.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the importance of water quantity and quality for the tree fruit industry in Washington? Does the WSTFA play a role in advocating for water supplies and irrigation infrastructure?
Jon DeVaney: Maintaining a stable water supply is extremely important for a perennial crop like tree fruit. An orchard can’t take a fallow year. You have to keep that multimillion-dollar orchard investment alive, even during a drought year with limited water supply.
It is also important that those water supplies be safe and of high quality. Tree fruit is generally a fresh produce product that doesn’t have a cooking or kill step. Most people are eating fresh apples, so we have to make sure we are using high-quality water that meets safety standards.
Because we have a warm climate, water has historically been used for orchard cooling. Fruit can get sunburned, just like people can, on hot summer days. We often use overhead sprinklers to keep fruit from sunburning. That means that water is important not just for growing the crop but for maintaining its quality.
All this means that we think about water a great deal in our industry. We have long-term infrastructure investments through our state and federal government in irrigation, and our association gets involved in state water policymaking decisions and in supporting water infrastructure investment at the federal level as well.
Irrigation Leader: Does that mean that you have a lobbying staff in Olympia and in Washington, DC?
Jon DeVaney: In Olympia, we have a contract lobbyist who works on our industry’s issues, and we also are part of coalitions that work on water infrastructure—the Washington Water Policy Alliance, for example. We are involved in federal associations such as the U.S. Apple Association, as well as the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represent the tree fruit industry across the Northwest on federal policy issues, including water policy issues.
Irrigation Leader: What is the WSTFA’s role in promoting water conservation and introducing new irrigation or water technologies?
Jon DeVaney: We work closely with research partners at universities and within our industry to identify new technologies, processes, and ideas that our members would benefit from learning more about, and we feature those at our annual conferences. Our annual meeting is a 3‑day conference at which we present a variety of topics to our grower and packer members. Water conservation and management is often a featured topic there. One of the methods that is currently being deployed in our industry is the use of shade cloth in orchard production to replace the use of water for cooling.
Irrigation Leader: What is your relationship, if any, with irrigation districts and other water suppliers?
Jon DeVaney: We work with irrigation districts on a variety of policy issues. As a broad-based, statewide organization, we have some members who have farms and multiple irrigation districts, and most of them serve at least some of our members. We tend to work most closely with irrigation districts on big, cross-cutting issues that affect water law in our state or on policy issues that affect all irrigation districts and growers, such as water quality for safety purposes. The Food Safety Modernization Act requires growers to test their water supplies, and we’ve coordinated with irrigation districts to meet some of those water quality and food safety goals.
Irrigation Leader: How has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected the Washington State tree fruit industry?
Jon DeVaney: We’re a labor-intensive industry, and pandemics affect people. There have been a lot of new worker-safety requirements related to managing an essential workforce during COVID‑19. A lot of those rules were developed and deployed with little preparation, and producers have incurred significant costs to comply with them. The WSTFA’s role has been to talk to policymakers about realities on the ground and in orchards, explaining what is feasible and what isn’t, and then informing our members of the emergency rules and restrictions that have been rolled out. The changes that have been enacted include requiring all workers in orchards to be wearing masks at all times. That is a good safety measure, but early on, adequate supplies of personal protective equipment were not available. We had to coordinate with the state to make sure that that requirement could be met.
It was also somewhat frustrating to figure out what counted as working alone in an orchard. If you’re in an orchard that covers hundreds of acres and someone else is on the opposite side, are you working alone or with someone? Gray areas like that had to be discussed with state agencies so that we could make sure we were complying with the law. Once we knew what the rules were, our orchards and packers did a good job following them. There were sometimes mad scrambles to comply with rules that were rolled out with little advance notice, which I suppose is the nature of actions in a crisis.
In addition to our work on the policy side, we’ve also been directly involved in helping the state distribute personal protective equipment, including hand sanitizer and masks, to agricultural workers. In 2020, we helped the state distribute over 300,000 masks to orchard and packing house workers.
Irrigation Leader: Has the pandemic had an effect on the ability of marketers and shippers to ship fruit around the country or abroad?
Jon DeVaney: Our industry has done a really good job of distributing our products, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic. When the pandemic first hit, we were used to shipping on an orderly basis, bringing fruit out of long-term storage week after week so that consumers could always find apples on their supermarket shelves. Early in the pandemic, there were challenges related to panic buying followed by people staying home for weeks at a time, which caused peaks and troughs in demand. It has stabilized somewhat now. Unlike some other produce commodities, most apples, cherries, and pears are purchased by consumers at the grocery store rather than sold to restaurants and the food-service sector. That means that we’ve had relatively stable and even growing demand for our products, because people are still buying their food at grocery stores, even as they’ve been forced to cut back on eating in restaurants.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your 2020 annual conference and the experience of holding a virtual conference?
Jon DeVaney: It went well. It is important that we still get information to the industry, and we picked the best available tools to do that in this environment. You always lose something when you can’t have people gathered together; a lot of sidebar conversation and reconnecting with friends and colleagues occur at a big meeting, conference, or trade show, which is harder to facilitate in an online format. Our participants told us that the online conference was better than they expected. We are hoping to do our annual meeting in person again in December 2021.
We also do an annual lobbying day in Olympia, our state capitol, in late January, which this year will have to happen online as well. The legislature is meeting virtually, so even if we all went to Olympia, we wouldn’t find the legislators there. We are going to be setting up a series of Zoom meetings with legislators to talk to them about our policy priorities. A virtual legislative session will be an interesting experience.
Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future of the tree fruit industry in Washington?
Jon DeVaney: I think that our industry has a strong future. Fresh, healthy produce, including apples, cherries, and pears, is appreciated by the public. Because people are eating from the grocery store more than they did before the pandemic, many consumers are rediscovering foods that they can easily prepare at home. Our products are convenient and readily available at grocery stores. There’s a lot of opportunity for our industry in this environment, and Washington remains one of the best places in the world to grow these crops. There are public policy challenges related to remaining competitive. Apples, for example, can be grown in a number of countries. We happen to grow them extremely well here, but we can’t price ourselves out of the market by putting so many barriers in front of our producers that they can’t stay in business. It is important for us to work on these policy issues so that our growers can remain competitive and take advantage of the opportunities that exist.