“I’m in my 37th year in this business, and I cannot wait for harvest,” said Mark Burnett.
That characteristic enthusiasm for harvest is likely familiar to most of the growers Mark serves in his role as what many refer to as a “Field Rep” for Tree Top. In the tree fruit industry, you tend to find a specific personality type marked by energy and optimism.
After talking to Mark for a few minutes, it’s pretty clear that he’s deeply rooted in the tree fruit business. “I’ve been doing this for years, grew up into it, and most of my friends and family are in the business.” In many respects, Mark was raised in the orchard and really never left, having grown up in the Wenatchee Valley the son of growers, and returning to the business after a stay at WSU to grab his Bachelor’s degree in Horticulture.
Mark has two acres of golden delicious apples right outside of Cashmere that he used to manage directly, but which he’s leased out for about the past 10 years.
After WSU, Mark went to work in the agriculture chemistry business, where he first developed many of the relationships he still enjoys today, after transitioning to Tree Top well over a decade ago. “Growing up here, it’s kind of always really been about servicing your friends and neighbors—big region, small community up here. Early on I enjoyed the travel through Okanogan and Omak and broadening that community. This whole northern region is just beautiful country. I never get tired of waking up here.”
When he does get up, his first stop is the Conoco station between his field office and home, where he has coffee with active and retired growers almost every morning. "Good people," says Burnett.
Working with small family growers and watching some of them make the transition to vertical integration and expansion, Mark has seen the industry change dramatically.
Mark works all year round with growers and packhouses. “Our main target is to look at the quality of fruit with the packers and try to match up with product for customers, giving packers an idea of need for juice or peeler. I meet with the processor contact or warehouse managers, reviewing pack plans, and doing a lot of predictive questioning to get a sense of product volume and variety. Each warehouse has its own personality and that’s enjoyable.”
Said Burnett, “Our biggest push is at harvest time, looking at fruit from June and July through harvest, working with the 50 or 80 growers we’re supporting on diverting fruit from the orchards for processing, helping them to get a return on the crop. Mother Nature can come in and deliver a blow with hail and frost and when that happens, we are there in the orchard examining fruit and varietals to find a place for them in the operation as peeler or juice.”
Burnett enjoys the seven day work weeks of harvest, talking pricing and accounting, with lots of contact with growers. “It’s when we can make the biggest difference for our members,” said Burnett. From August to November, seeing fruit on the trees and finding a place for it in the Tree Top operation helps the grower and the processor. Harvest days involve following up with logistics and receiving data, figuring out the status of a growers on picking and delivering. It requires working with packers to find quality fits for product that was expected for fresh pack but maybe didn’t make the grade.
As a cooperative, we’re only as strong as our growers. We really want our growers to know that we’re all in this together.”