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Tree fruit industry veteran Keith Mathews, who is currently executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, was hired by FirstFruits of Washington at the beginning of October as its new chief executive officer.

Mr. Mathews is currently wrapping up his official duties with the association, where he has worked a total of seven years during two separate stints - from 1989 to 1994 and again from 2007 to 2009.

Mr. Mathews began his working career as a high school science teacher and got his first exposure to the tree fruit industry after joining his father-in- law's packing company. Mr. Mathews also served as marketing director for Rainier Fruit Co. for eight years and worked for the L&M Cos. for five years as director of Northwest production.

FirstFruits announced its formation this past summer, just in time for apple production. It is a grower cooperative based in Yakima, WA, and currently represents Broetje Orchards, headquartered in Prescott, WA, and Columbia Valley Fruit, located in Union Gap, WA.

"I feel honored to bring 30 years of rather diverse experience to this company," he told The Produce News Oct. 26.

According to Mr. Mathews, Broetje Orchards broke virgin sagebrush ground in 1981, eventually becoming Washington's largest contiguous orchard. Today, the company is markets 7 million boxes of fruit annually, with volume significantly weighted toward organic. Columbia Valley Fruit, now in its third year of operation, will market over 1 million boxes of apples this season, with volumes also weighted toward organic.

"We believe in very short order we will become a 10 million-box company offering quality apples, cherries and pears," Mr. Mathews said. Broetje Orchards plans to introduce three new trademarked apple varieties in the coming years.

Mr. Mathews said that FirstFruits is vertically integrated from the field to the consumer. One of its more unusual aspects, he added, is its commitment to global humanitarian programs, which include leprosy projects in India, assistance to AIDS orphans in Africa and assistance to orphanages in Mexico. Companies that become part of the FirstFruits cooperative commit to giving 10 percent of their profit to help support such programs.

Mr. Mathews termed his departure from the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association as bittersweet. "The board of the association was gracious enough to extend the position of executive director to me. I had planned to stay [with the organization]," he said, adding that the opportunity with FirstFruits was one he could not pass up.

The board of directors of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association has hired Jon DeVaney, a staffer for Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), as its new executive director. Mr. DeVaney is expected to take the reins in mid- November, and Mr. Mathews will be available for the next three months to ensure a smooth transition.