Ask Desmond O’Rourke, 73, how he got into the Washington apple industry and he’ll tell you: “It sucked me in like a vacuum.”
Who would have imagined, so many years later, that he would be such a valuable cog in the machine that is the Washington apple industry. Not O’Rourke, for one.
But O’Rourke, the founder, president and chief executive officer of Belrose Inc., a world apple analyst in Pullman, Wash., provides information the industry relies on heavily.
With a doctorate in agricultural economics from the University of California, O’Rourke started out as a faculty member of Agricultural Economics at Washington State University in 1970. During his 30 years at Washington State, he was an ag economist supervising international marketing research.
He was introduced to the apple industry while it was going through some struggles.
“The industry had some frost damage and people wanted me to do a study of the major packinghouses,” O’Rourke said.
After his first analysis he became a part of the Washington apple community. Many apple industry leaders helped and supported O’Rourke along the way.
“I fell on my feet with really good people,” O’Rourke said.
Some in the Washington apple community view him with similar appreciation.
“Des has been an invaluable resource to the growers and marketers of Washington apples over his career and association with Washington State University and The Impact Center,” said Keith Mathews, chief executive officer of First Fruits Marketing, Yakima, Wash.
Mathews said O’Rourke’s work has provided the Washington apple industry with critical information, which was sometimes met with less than enthusiastic responses from some.
“Applying real world insights alongside doctoral economics, Des works hard to provide solid direction to those apple folks who would take his heed,” Matthews said.
“This industry may not have always liked nor appreciated his warnings, but in the long term his insights and advice have proven quite valid.”
O’Rourke said that kind of forecasting was something a colleague encouraged him to do, saying rather than looking at a problem he should instead look ahead to what’s evolving. And that’s what he did.
O’Rourke met with many growers, shippers and retailers to help find and expand markets for Washington apples. He looked into export markets.
In 1970, the industry record for apples was around 40 million boxes. This year, there is an estimated 140 million boxes, O’Rourke said. The apple market continues to grow. O’Rourke has seen the industry change throughout the years. When he started, there were only two varieties, red delicious and green delicious.
Keeping track of the state’s apples is a huge task, and Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, Wenatchee, said O’Rourke has been known for his statistics for years.
“His work has had a big impact on our industry,” Fryhover said. “And it still is. We just commissioned an economic impact report from Belrose and Globalwise Inc.
“They went out and interviewed 20 different packers, and the data is invaluable.”
Along with researching the apple market, O’Rourke writes a monthly newsletter, “The World Apple Report.” The newsletter provides information on apple deals and trade news.
Thinking back to his accomplishments in his career is not something O’Rourke does often.
“I don’t like to look back on my career,” O’Rourke said. “I like to look forward and see what opportunities are ahead.”
Staff writer Coral Beach contributed to this story.