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Recently, the newspaper carried an Associated Press story covering top concerns aired by Washington State potato growers and processors as they peered into the crystal ball of the future during a long-range planning meeting. First, kudos goes to our potato brethren for taking the time to plan the future together as an industry. Many ag groups once just waited to see what happened in the marketplace and then concocted a plan of reaction. Finally, we see the wisdom of sitting together, analyzing our strengths and admitting our weaknesses, seeking out our opportunities, and addressing our threats.

Our industry held a similar session last November that included five of our wine and grape leaders presenting reports on progress made in research, education, legislative issues, and marketing. The speakers were uniquely qualified to share the history of their subject to set the stage for the discussion to come.

Our session was coordinated jointly by the Washington Wine Commission, the Washington Wine Institute, and the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, and was a full day of assessing where we’ve been, and then, more importantly, where we want to go in the future and how to build that path to the future. In the AP story about the potato meeting, there was a poignant quote that reminded me why we, or any industry, would want to sit down together and establish a plan or course of action.

Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, was discussing the up side of baby boomers having more disposable income, eating out more often, and boosting sales opportunities to restaurants and their suppliers. The down side is having those same suppliers contact the potato industry wanting a corporate stewardship policy on employee pay, environmental awareness, and pesticide use. Mr. Voigt’s comment was, “That is a concern for us because we don’t want some guy in a cubicle making all these decisions, not knowing what it’s like to farm.”

Right on! I can’t think of a more motivating reason for an industry to sit down together to determine a future and lay out a plan. The truth is if you don’t, someone else will, and you likely won’t appreciate the outcome. Imagine Cubicle Guy determining your future. Cubicle Guy could work at a distributor, a state agency, or a federal agency, or sit in a high-ranking position in another country or with a national environmental group.

The wine and grape industries recognized that their explosive growth created opportunities; they also recognized it created challenges. Our day began by celebrating the impressive progress made with no thanks to Cubicle Guy. We did this all on our own: increased assessments for the Wine Commission, reconstituted the Foundation Block to provide clean plant material, provided more educational opportunities for enology and viticulture students by creating a statewide consortium of the institutions, and created the “Vinewise” program to promote grower and vintner sustainability.

The commitment to a wine and grape industry session came from the sponsoring organizations. Each group determined that it was time to publicly address progress made and identify future needs as well as help set an industrywide goal. That industrywide goal is to provide focus for all issues, staffing, funding, and organizational structure. One goal already adopted through the efforts of a research task force was to triple economic impact by 2020. There was no discussion of turf, only of what needed to be done with the assumption that necessary resources for staffing and programs would be part of the plan. How that would be done is still to be determined, as it should be.

In the aftermath of the summit session, the next steps fall to staff of the three sponsoring organizations to jointly draft proposals and suggest processes to address the issues aired:

• Research: How do we organize to continually prioritize industry needs and increase funding for research and research staffing and infrastructure?

• Education: The now five-year-old Enology and Viticulture Education Consortium has met most, if not all, of the initial goals from the industry-funded needs assessment and goal-setting process. Shall we update the needs assessment to determine goals for the next five to ten years? And if we don’t, how do we methodically and accurately determine our needs so we can target the necessary educational programs? How do we rekindle the industry involvement expressed in the beginning of the process?

• Legislative and regulatory affairs: The discussion here was a bit more difficult in that there has been no industrywide organizational process to determine needs and formulate ways to address those needs. Historically, the Washington Wine Institute, funded by dues-paying winery members, handled strictly winery issues at the state level, while the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, funded by dues-paying grower members, handled wine grape grower specific issues at the state level. The institute suffers from under-appreciation by wineries, and the association suffers from under-funded legislative activities. At the federal level, both entities weigh in depending on the issue, funding, and staff travel schedules. So, how do we best meet the needs of both wineries and growers at the state and federal level (regardless of current structure)? And how do we promote clarity and deeper understanding of the issues affecting both wineries and growers?

• Marketing: On the marketing front, where the audience held a higher level of awareness of current issues and promotional activities undertaken by the Washington Wine Commission, the discussion was tactical and focused on matching funding to markets and spending, all of which are part of the Wine Commission’s five-year business plan for marketing Washington wine to the world…including to Cubicle Guy.

So, what’s next? Define the goal. Determine how to get there. Prioritize the issues and the steps involved. Identify the resources needed, including money and staffing. Determine who does what organizationally. Establish a timeline. Go.

Look out, Cubicle Guy.