Washington's largest tree-fruit organization is contemplating taking its annual convention and trade show to the Tri-Cities in 2014, breaking a tradition that has stood for 108 years.
The Washington State Horticultural Association historically has rotated the convention between Yakima and Wenatchee. A decision to add the Tri-Cities on a one-year trial basis will be made next month.
The fact that officials are contemplating such a change reflects a shift in production to the Columbia Basin and the growing attendance of orchard employees from the region who would find it easier to travel to the Tri-Cities.
The locale would be the Three Rivers Convention Center. Should the experience be a good one, the Tri-Cities likely would become part of a three-city rotation with Wenatchee and Yakima.
The possibility is likely to be a hot topic among growers, who value the tradition of alternating the Yakima and Wenatchee venues, the dual cradles of the apple industry.
The Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau estimates the convention contributes more than $600,000 in economic activity from lodging, food, transportation, and retail purchases by convention attendees.
The annual meeting drew 1,600 people to Yakima for the three-day educational meeting at the Yakima Convention Center and vendor trade show at the Yakima Valley SunDome last December.
John Cooper, CEO of the Yakima convention bureau, said it's not unusual for groups to consider changing the locations where they meet.
"We would be sorry to see them leave. We understand if they want to try a new location," Cooper said. "That is the nature of how things go. I think our level of service and commitment to this group has been very strong."
Jeff Cleveringa, this year's association president, is in charge of research and development for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers of Wenatchee and a native of Prosser. He said the board will decide only after receiving comments from members.
"We have been discussing it for more than a year now, trying to weigh the issue," he said. "As the industry has grown, there has been a lot of expansion to the Columbia Basin, Snake River and Pasco areas."
Stephanie Chance, the association's communications director, said there have been complaints about a lack of parking at the Wenatchee Convention Center. In Yakima, the issue is the distance between the Convention Center and the SunDome where the trade show is staged.
"Those are our two common complaints from members," Chance said. "What is great is the Toyota Center has capacity and has the trade show and convention together that can hold 200-plus vendors, the same amount or more than the SunDome, and there is ample parking."
Chance said the discussion is in line with industry changes as a younger generation of growers becomes more involved. She pointed to the theme of the 2012 convention that dealt with succession planning: how wealth is transferred to the next generation.
"We are trying to definitely keep up with that and with the evolution of our industry," she said. "We have a growing number of acres and members in that area, and the board would like to accommodate them."
Still, some are raising questions about adding a Tri-Cities location.
Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee, a group that tracks movement and prices for its membership, commented that the majority of growers are in the Yakima and Wenatchee areas.
"I'm not necessarily opposed to it. It just seems population-wise there are fewer growers there and the industry is not really that heavy in the Tri-Cities itself," he said, adding that most of the basin fruit is shipped to Yakima or Wenatchee for packing and marketing.
More orchard employees are attending the annual convention as the industry works to provide educational opportunities for them. Convention sessions conducted in Spanish are among the most well-attended in recent years.
More of the apple industry's production is moving toward the Columbia Basin counties of Franklin, Grant and a portion of Adams.
The Columbia Basin is home to about 35 percent of the total apple acreage in the state, or almost 58,000 acres, according to the 2011 tree fruit acreage report prepared by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The Yakima Valley has nearly 67,000 acres while Wenatchee accounts for 34,000 acres.
Those single-year figures don't tell the whole story. Since 2001, Columbia Basin acreage has nearly doubled, while both Yakima and Wenatchee have seen acreage declines.
Much of the basin acreage has been developed by fruit warehouses opening new lands in the basin. They're planting large orchard blocks with more trees on a per-acre basis that produce higher volumes of apples and achieve that production sooner.
The shift to higher density plantings - even as the total of producing acreage has declined - has resulted in a record apple crop this year of about 129 million boxes. The industry has been investing in additional storage facilities to handle what is forecast to be a continuation of higher production into the future.
David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or firstname.lastname@example.org.