Spoiling the Whole Bunch

Soured by low prices, Colorado apple growers see a worm in their marketing plan.

In the peculiar economics of farming, this year's Colorado apple crop was the best of times--right up until it became the worst of times. Last fall, the size and quality of the state's harvest was the healthiest in nearly a decade. Unfortunately, growers across the country enjoyed the same luck. The result: a massive apple glut and some of the lowest prices in recent memory.

Experts say such stressful statistics may be the real reason behind a simmering strudel that is splitting the state's growers. On the surface, however, what's upsetting the cart is something called the apple marketing order.

"Although I support the concept of state marketing orders, particularly when they work well, this particular one has kind of fallen into disrepair," says Steve Acquafresca, a former Western Slope state representative and current apple farmer. "In fact, I would call it dysfunctional."

Harold Broughton, an owner of High Quality Packing whose family has been picking and packaging apples out of Delta for a century, disagrees. "What we got is one ex-legislator--who's supposedly an apple grower--trying to stir the pot," he says. "Most people are happy with the order."

A marketing order is a mechanism by which local crop producers try to make their voice heard above the din of other farmers trying to sell their harvests. An order is born when a group of farmers agree to tax themselves based on the size of their yearly crop yield. The money is then collected, pooled and spent on research and efforts to pitch the particular crop. Once formed by the farmers, the marketing order is overseen by the state Department of Agriculture, which makes sure the money is spent the way it was intended.

Although generally stable, marketing orders can rise and fall with the economy or the mood of their creators. In the early 1980s, Colorado peach farmers, convinced after several decades that their marketing order was doing them little good, voted to eliminate it. More recently, a broccoli marketing order faded into nothing when state growers stopped producing the vegetable. Today the state hosts eight marketing orders: one each for wheat, apples, milk, dry beans, corn and sweet corn, and two different orders for potatoes--one based in Greeley, the other covering the farmers in the San Luis Valley.

The largest order is for wheat, whose growers contribute up to $1 million each year to promote Colorado's crop. On the other end of the scale, two Colorado shippers pony up about $5,000 each to fund the sweet-corn marketing order.

With a budget this past year of about $40,000, the apple marketing order is one of the smallest in the state, reflecting the relatively tiny size of Colorado's crop. The money comes from about 100 growers in Delta and Montrose counties. (The state's other apple-growing county, Mesa, is not part of the marketing order.) Although some of the money goes toward research, particularly in the growing niche of varietals, the majority of the cash is spent on marketing.

Agricultural marketing offers a vague target at best. So many factors contribute to why a fruit or vegetable sells and for what price that it's often difficult to tell what effect marketing has. So the idea requires a degree of trust. This was particularly true last year, when the Colorado apple marketing order, anticipating a difficult season because of the looming apple glut, doubled the assessment on its growers from five to ten cents a bushel. Though an individual farmer or packer will still rarely pay more than a few hundred dollars, Acquafresca says the order is far from worth the cost.

"We've had to pay more and more money into this process, yet the return has fallen further and further," he complains.

Harry Talbot, owner of Talbot Farms, a Mesa County packing company that does not pay into the marketing order, agrees with Acquafresca. "The promotion people just don't know the apple industry," he says. "They might be selling women's underwear on the one hand and then apples on the other." By contrast, Talbot says, "the state of Washington has an actual apple commission. They're professionals. They eat, drink and breathe apples."

That's because they can afford to, says Helen Davis, who helps administer marketing orders for Colorado's Department of Agriculture. She says that farmers in Washington, the country's biggest apple-growing state, tax themselves forty cents a bushel--four times the rate of the Colorado farmers' self-assessment. The result is an annual advertising budget of about $250 million.

Sometimes, Davis adds, economic forces simply trump a marketing order, whatever its size--a fact that she says seems to have escaped some Colorado apple growers. "A lot of people believe the marketing order isn't doing its job if the prices aren't high," she observes.

Still, she concedes that Acquafresca and other disgruntled growers have pointed out some things about the state's apple marketing order that "could raise some eyebrows." Conflicts of interest, for example.

In particular, Acquafresca notes that the same person whom the apple marketing order pays to generically promote Colorado apples, Mary Lou Chapman, also works on the side as a paid marketer for the state's largest packer, High Quality. (Company owner Broughton acknowledges that he hires Chapman to sell High Q's own label of apples when she's not pushing Colorado's apples generally for the marketing order.) On top of that, Chapman, who did not return several calls from Westword seeking comment, works as a legislative lobbyist for a trade organization called Rocky Mountain Food Dealers.

"It's impossible for her to wear that many hats--lobbyist, promoter of an independent [apple] brand and then promoter of generic Colorado apples," gripes Acquafresca. And, he adds, he ought to know.

"When I was a legislator, she would approach me in various matters and mix up her political action with her marketing job all the time," he says.

Although Broughton and Davis insist that Acquafresca is standing virtually alone in his battle against the apple marketing order, the former lawmaker has managed to line up one important ally--Kay Alexander, his successor as the legislative representative from District 58.

Earlier this year, as the result of Acquafresca's complaints, Alexander, a Republican, introduced House Bill 1202. Among other provisions, it would require the apple marketing order to come up with a cohesive sales and advertising plan for Colorado's crop--a departure from current policy, says Acquafresca.

"I've seen the latest plan," he says. "What a pathetic excuse for a marketing plan! Even a sophomore marketing student would be surprised by the shallowness and feebleness of this plan."

The result of such aimless promotion, he says, is that "other growers have creamed us in our front yard; in the Front Range, they've whipped us on the supermarket shelves. We used to have a good market along the Front Range. Now we're forced to ship more and more to Texas, the southeast United States and Costa Rica."

Davis responds that Chapman and the apple marketing order are doing the best they can, given what they have to work with, and that Acquafresca is only partially correct in his interpretation of why Colorado's apples are disappearing from the state's stores. She says the shrinking market is the result of a consolidation of supermarket chains--which prefer to buy apples from a single source--and the relatively small size of Colorado's apple crop.

"The major chains, such as King Soopers and Safeway, don't look to Colorado, because with the volume they need it makes more sense to buy from Washington," she explains. "That's a real problem. And it's only going to get worse.

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