Jennifer Harte, agricultural economist who coordinated the Future of Farming strategic plan for Washington agriculture, described the plan as a comprehensive document developed from the input and expertise of hundreds. But, she says,what it is not is a solution for the future of farming.

"It’s not a panacea but a tool—an educational and action-oriented tool," she told the Washington Growers Clearing House Association board of directors during their March meeting in Yakima, Washington. The document represents the input of more than 300 industry experts who helped write the plan and involved some 2,000 producers and consumers who responded to surveys, interviews, listening sessions, and such.

"The industry asked for this strategic plan," Harte said, adding that industry representatives asked the legislature to fund a strategic plan, the first since 1988. Farmers were coming off a tough decade (1995–2005) of weak prices, intense competition in world and domestic markets, competition for resources of water, land, and labor; and many growers left the industry. In response to industry’s concern about their future, the legislature directed WSDA in 2007 to conduct a producer-guided analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to Washington agriculture and make recommendations to the 2009 legislature to keep agriculture competitive, sustainable, and profitable. The legislature appropriated $550,000 for the project.

Agricultural leaders and WSDA underwent a similar exercise in the late 1980s, producing a strategic plan called AG 2000. While the AG 2000 outlined key strategies, few of the project’s recommendations were accomplished. Harte stressed that considerable time was spent by the Future of Farming steering committee reviewing lessons learned from AG 2000 so that the same mistakes were not repeated.

She believes that much of the responsibility for implementing the plan’s priorities rests on the shoulders of industry. It will take strong commitment from all of Washington agriculture, she said, but if the movers and shakers of industry apply their talents and resources to a few common goals, the result could transform agriculture’s self-image and win new respect throughout the state.

"This plan doesn’t need to die," she said, referring to the 1988 strategic plan that got caught in leadership changes within WSDA and died on the shelf. "This one was led by industry."

Although she will complete her work on the project in June, she hopes that the stakeholders will assess the plan each year for progress, update, and action. 

Contentious issues

During the development of the strategic plan for Washington agriculture, the steering committee had to grapple with a few controversial and debatable issues, said Keith Mathews, steering committee member. The most contentious areas were climate change and sustainable/organic agriculture.

Nearly three pages of the report Washington Agriculture Strategic Plan 2020 and Beyond are devoted to coping with climate change.

"The Future of Farming process received mixed responses to the evolving attention to climate change," according to the report. "The principal concern of producers participating in listening sessions is that it will add more restrictions and compliance requirement layers on Washington’s agricultural industry."

The report does not debate if climate change will happen, but discussed mitigation policies likely to emerge in the next few years at both regional and federal levels that will have direct or indirect consequences for agriculture.

Sustainability was also a difficult area for the steering committee, Mathews said. "It means so many different things to so many different people, but there is a lot of push for ‘sustainable’ agriculture. It’s become the chic buzzword for consumers to jump on."

Sustainability and organic products were considered under the priority of "harnessing emerging opportunities." The committee recognized that organic, local, sustainable, free-range, grass-fed, and other alternative or nonconventional types of productions and certifications are demand-led and increasing. Producers need to be aware of this growing sector and prepared to meet demand.

The report suggests "leveraging the increased interest in local, organic, and other new products into demand sufficient to market them at the required prices." It calls for continued promotion of locally grown products and institutional buying of Washington products; enhanced regulatory structure to assure integrity of organic production; enhanced research, extension, and teaching in organic and alternative production and marketing of products; and encourages consolidation of the definition and certification requirements for "sustainability."