More than 100 Mid-Columbia fruit growers, agri-business professionals and government officials packed the Pine Grove Grange Nov. 13 for a symposium billed as the "Future of the Mid-Columbia Tree Fruit Industry."
The conference was facilitated by Ed Barlow, a futurist who has made his mark by giving studied perspectives on potential future trends in a wide range of industries. On Tuesday, Barlow trained his spotlight on the future of tree fruit and it illuminated some intriguing -- and at times startling -- possibilities.
Clark Seavert, superintendent of the Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center, opened the forum by asking participants to "think in a different framework today."
He told the audience, "Rethink where you are, where you want to be three, five, seven, 12 years in the future. The purpose of the day is to think outside the box."
Barlow took that premise and ran with it.
"Eighty percent of what you need to know to make your business successful in the 21st century is outside your industry or field of expertise as you know it today," he said in his opening remarks. The key to success in the future, he said, is continually adapting to an environment that is continually changing.
"The future is not bad," he said. "It's just different." Integral to the industry's success, he added, is creating alliances with businesses and other industries that most attendees had never thought of in that manner before.
"If you think you're in the fruit growing business, you're finished," Barlow said. "Let me tell you what business you're in. Number one, you create and supply people's lifestyle choices. And number two, you create and supply successful business practices."
Barlow presented a new view on some generally-held principles about threats faced by local growers. He pointed out that in the next 20 years, the world's population will grow by 3 billion people -- 3 billion more people that will need to eat.
"You're industry is growing, you're just not where the action is," he said. "Mainland China. Your biggest competitor and also your biggest market," he added bluntly.
He spoke to a range of other issues, from building a workforce pool from the upcoming generation to the importance of the Internet for industry success to tapping into an exploding array of niche markets.
Rep. Greg Walden called in to the symposium and spoke over the loudspeaker from his Washington office. He talked about his efforts -- and the Bush Administration's -- to address trade and tariff issues. Walden said he expects "this administration and this Congress" to be aggressive in getting other countries to lower tariffs and ease barriers to fair trade opportunities.
"If I were to look into the crystal ball," he said, "I think there will be a renewed focus on export opportunities from the U.S."
Walden also addressed the "paradigm shift" in immigration issues due to Sept. 11 and its implications for the tree fruit industry. "It may have a positive effect," he said, in creating legalized guest worker status for migrant workers.
Walden also said that food "safety is paramount in the minds of consumers" since Sept. 11, and that that could boost the industry both as people choose to buy home-grown fruit and as inspections of imports rise. He noted that the U.S. currently inspects less than one percent of what "comes across our borders."
The morning session was rounded out by a presentation on consumer trends by Dr. David Lakey, director of the Food Industry Leadership Center at Portland State University; an address about technology and tree fruit production by Dr. Fran Pierce of the Washington State University Center for Precision Agricultural Systems; and a look at agricultural financing by Merrill Miller of Farm Credit Services in Spokane, Wash.
The afternoon included a working lunch where participants discussed "critical issues" and formed ideas about addressing them. Six "action areas" were identified as most crucial. Seavert scheduled a follow-up meeting for February to assess progress on them.
"I think it was a great presentation," said Parkdale grower Paul Haake. "We're rarely challenged about looking to the future. Year after year, we do the same things."
Camille Hukari also was impressed with event -- particularly with Barlow's insights. But she said the real challenge is getting the symposium attendees to follow up. "As far as the ultimate value (of the day), what it comes down to is what happens with the recommendations we came up with," she said. "I hope it got people thinking in new directions."