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Friday, Aug. 13, 2010

Washington wine pioneer, Bud Mercer, dies

PROSSER, Wash. -- Whether championing agricultural innovations or civic projects, Bud Mercer lived a life of unwavering purpose.

Mercer, a pioneer in the Eastern Washington agricultural industry and a member of the Mid-Columbia Hall of Fame, died Wednesday night following a long struggle with pulmonary fibrosis, said his son, Rob. He was 71.

But Mercer's accomplishments, from serving on myriad state and local agricultural boards over the years to his fundraising role as co-president of the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center Board, are just part of his rich legacy to family and longtime friends.

"Dad always liked to stay busy. He was always trying to improve things around him, from the farm to the community," Rob Mercer said. "That was his 100 percent focus."

A third-generation farmer and rancher, Bud Mercer was part of the evolution of his family's business from the sheep-herding days of his youth to irrigated farming as a young adult.

He developed a fresh pack carrot industry, transformed dry farmland into one of the largest irrigated vegetable farms in the region, and led the Mercers to prominence in the state's growing wine industry.

"The contributions Bud made to our agricultural industry are tremendous: opening markets, developing innovative products and techniques, pioneering new crops like miniature carrots. Bud was a big thinker and doer," said Dan Newhouse, director of the Washington Department of Agriculture and a friend.

"He's the kind of person the rest of us look up to and learn from," Newhouse said.

Mercer was instrumental in bringing irrigation water to the Horse Heaven Hills, transforming the family farming operation into a thriving vegetable farm that produced carrots, onions, potatoes and grapes.

The Mercer family also later branched into the wine business, forming a partnership with the Hogue family and creating Mercer Wine Estates.

"When Dad started to develop the farm in the late 1960s, he created a magnificent place out of 10,000 acres of sagebrush. He created an enterprise that feeds a whole lot of the world, and he was proud of all the improvements he was able to make," Rob said.

Mercer helped form the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, which now represents many of Eastern Washington's largest farming operations. He took on a leadership role in agricultural water rights, said the association's Darryll Olsen.

"I think of him as an Old Testament figure. It was like he brought a covenant to Eastern Washington: We'll use the water wisely, treat each other fairly, equally and with dignity, and we'll all prosper," Olsen said.

"His whole approach was to do things competently and honestly. He's irreplaceable. There are not many people who bring out the best in those who you touch in your life, and he did that universally," he said.

Mercer often helped others. Tri-Cities attorney Coke Roth said Mercer sent him work when he was starting out as an attorney, anxious to see him succeed. He also drove to the Tri-Cities to deliver Roth checks for work that he did for him.

"After that, when his projects were finished, Bud would stop in almost monthly for the first year of my practice to say 'Hi' and make sure my days were full," Roth said. "He had a golden heart."

He often did business with a handshake, Roth said.

"His word was his bond. If he told you he was going to do something, he did it," said Jack Chapman, co-president of the Clore board with Mercer.

Chapman and Deb Heintz of the Prosser Economic Development Association said Mercer was involved for years in promoting civic projects in Prosser, from the Princess Theater to fundraising for the Clore center.

"We've lost a true hero of our community," Heintz said. "He was definitely a 'get-r-done' kind of guy. He'd grab onto something and make it happen."

Besides the Clore center, Mercer made time over the years to serve on an array of other agricultural or civic boards. They included the Washington State Potato Commission and National Potato Promotion Board, Benton County Farm Bureau, Washington State Vegetable Association, Prosser Economic Development Association and the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.

"His achievements were larger than life. He would come across to people who would meet him as a rock star. He had charisma that was pretty powerful," Rob Mercer said.

"What I learned from Dad was honesty, and individual responsibility. He never minced words and he was never big on letting someone else do something he could do," he said.

Mercer is survived by his wife, Patsy; sons, Rob and Will; daughter Julie Mercer, stepson Mark and stepdaughter Lisa. Funeral arrangements are pending.