Strategic plans are only valuable if they come off the shelf and are put to use. Such will be the real measure of success of the Future of Farming report recently compiled by Washington State’s agricultural industry and submitted to the legislature.
Robert Gore, deputy director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, presented the comprehensive Washington Agriculture Strategic Plan 2020 and Beyond to state policymakers in early February, culminating a year’s worth of work by agricultural experts and leaders. The industry-guided plan provides recommendations and proposals for specific future actions, some of which involve legislative response and some from industry. The 100-page report and 9-page executive summary make for good reading, but what happens next?
In early April, the 16-member steering committee that led the Future of Farming plan met with new WSDA Director Dan Newhouse and Deputy Director Gore to focus on how to move the priorities forward and keep the document "living." Preliminary discussions after the report was finalized have centered on reconvening at least once a year with the stakeholders, WSDA, and legislators to keep the strategic plan current.
"We are getting a clearer picture of what farmers say they need to keep agriculture prosperous over the long term," said Newhouse regarding the strategic plan.
"Policymakers at all levels need to keep agriculture a priority by establishing a business environment and public policy framework that are conducive to success. The vision of our producers captured in the Future of Farming will help us support and sustain the viability of farming and ranching all across the state."
The Good Fruit Grower asked tree fruit and grape steering committee members in a telephone interview what they hope the plan will accomplish.
Steering committee member Keith Mathews, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers–Shippers Association, believes the report contains information valuable to lawmakers. "I went into this thinking that the time invested would leave us with a good document to hand to our industry lobbyists and to state legislators," said the representative of tree fruit growers and packers of the Yakima Valley.
"The legislature was convinced that the project had merit because it invested $550,000 of state money and directed WSDA to develop the report on their behalf," Mathews said. "I intend to use it in leveraging whatever it may relate to. The people that pay my salary and allowed my involvement deserve more than having it sit on the shelf."
He adds that the agricultural community worked diligently on the project, providing position papers and gathering a broad base of input. The commodity- and farmer-based document represents the entire spectrum of agriculture and provides a studied look at the agricultural industry.
"Our industry works very long and hard hours," he said. "At the end of the day, public relations is an afterthought. Marketing and promotion efforts for our products are done around the world, but we need to be telling our story in our own backyard."
While farmers see themselves as stewards of the land, urbanites in Seattle and west of the Cascade Mountains have an ancillary view that open land is for recreation, Mathews explained.
Keep it alive
Jeff Gordon of Gordon Brothers Winery in Pasco, who represented Washington’s wine industry on the steering committee, agrees that the report has value for legislators in Olympia. "It provides agriculture’s view on certain things," he said, likening it to looking at agriculture through the lens of a microscope. "Every legislator should have a copy and use it as a template.
"Our charge to the new WSDA director is to make it active, ongoing, and for the deparment to take it to the legislature and other policymakers. We aren’t there in Olympia every day like they are."
He notes that the industry spent a lot of time putting the plan together as did the state agriculture department. "Don’t let it die," he pleaded.
Gordon said that the steering committee, in looking to the future, focused on things that "have to change right now" to keep agriculture prosperous in the next decade. "These are things that need to happen at the legislative level to assist agriculture in remaining viable."
Although Washington agriculture is very diverse, Gordon believes the report is a good representation of the industry. It’s not a narrow view of wheat farmers or dairy farmers, but nearly everyone had a seat at the table, he said, adding that most issues cut across commodities. "When I listened to the other commodities and heard their issues, I could hear myself saying the same things."
He hopes that all commodity groups will become advocates and use the document to educate local and state representatives, especially those from urban areas.
Gordon emphasized that the strategic plan was compiled not for growers but as a tool to educate those who enact laws that impact agriculture. "Farmers don’t need to read it—they live it every day. They just need to help carry the message."
Take the lead
Steve Sakuma, apple and berry grower and nurseryman from Burlington, Washington, isn’t on the steering committee, but as an interested grower, he attended one of the listening sessions held around the state and has read the full report.
"I like what they came up with and the recommendations," he said, but noted that it will take effort by all agricultural groups to move the recommendations forward.
Sakuma is hopeful the new WSDA director will be agriculture’s voice in Olympia. He notes that as WSDA director, Newhouse has a cabinet position on Governor Gregoire’s team and should have equal footing in the cabinet decision-making process.
"All of the agricultural groups need to be putting pressure on WSDA to keep the strategic plan moving," he said.
The full report and extensive appendix can be found on the Future of Farming Web site at http://agr.wa.gov/fof.•
Washington Agriculture Strategic Plan 2020 and Beyond identifies the following broad strategies for keeping agriculture viable:
1. Make agriculture a priority. Farming needs to be given the priority it merits by citizens and lawmakers of Washington.
2. Eliminate regulatory barriers. Complex local, state, and federal regulations that threaten the competitiveness of Washington’s food producers and processors need to be assessed and reformed.
3. Protect resources. The availability of productive and affordable land, water, labor, and energy resources is essential.
4. Strengthen support services. Support services of transportation, science, technology, research and development, processing and preparation, and more will help Washington remain competitive in global markets.
5. Harness emerging opportunities. Agriculture must acknowledge, recognize, monitor, and tap into emerging factors in a timely manner.