By SAM LOWRY
Special to the News
Katy Coba likes to say that in Oregon, “agriculture is everything.” She speaks of the Hood River Valley with a gleam in her eye, seeing a gem among the many gems that create state agriculture’s greatest advantage, and its challenge — diversity.
Coba, Oregon Department of Agriculture Director since February, introduced her message and herself to the Hood River agricultural community on Monday, demonstrating the approach she and Gov. Ted Kulongoski will take to help Oregon agriculture through difficult times.
“When the governor first approached me,” Coba told a full meeting room at the Waucoma Center, “I was hesitant.” The traditional role of ODA was regulatory; her skill and passion are in marketing and economic development. She and her boss-to-be quickly saw eye to eye — he promised a new emphasis for ODA, and has been true to his word, according to Coba.
Key elements of her program are not unfamiliar to local growers: supporting innovation of value-added and specialty products, helping create niches and direct marketing relationships, and “being smarter” than out-of-state competitors.
Coba, from a Pendleton wheat ranch via a lifelong career in State agricultural economics and international trade, also intends to exercise savvy with overseas markets, careful attention to trends, a progressive attitude to regulation and environmental concerns — and activism. Coba speaks less of plans than of what she and her department are doing and what’s already been done.
Monday’s event, in a town hall format, emphasized dialogue. Coba and an invited panel made it plain that people must share resources and learn from one another to master the troublesome global economy, and to make agriculture’s case to the state as a whole. Panel member Rob Miller, “passionate” about technology and systems, described experiments at his Mt. Jefferson Farms and noted the governor’s belief that collaboration between agriculture and high tech can help cement the “urban-rural compact,” also a priority of Coba’s.
Camille Hukari of Pine Grove presented conclusions from a year’s effort by her five-county, Hood-River-area economic development committee. The most effective help for the most distressed growers in the shortest time will come, the group has recommended, from funding a full-time “coach” to help overworked growers turn their innovative ideas into reality.
Panelist Ken Bailey of Orchard View Farms in The Dalles described ways he’s stayed profitable, converting 1000-plus acres from apples to cherries then trying everything from modified-atmosphere packaging to opening new markets in Cambodia.
In the spirit of the event, others also put their resources on the table. Lynn Schoessler, state director for rural development, U.S. Department of Agriculture, described programs of the Oregon Rural Development Council, an event co-sponsor. Laura Barton, ODA’s international trade manager, described institutional “Buy Oregon” awards and Japanese interest in foods with “nutraceutical” properties. And Debra Sohm of EcoTrust distributed information about the Oregon Farmer-Chef Collaborative, its new produce guide for chefs and its online sales hotline for growers.
The ODA is regulatory, but Coba favors finding any advantage, particularly by touting required practices and certifications as testaments to Oregon quality. The governor, with his new Office of Regulatory Streamlining, wants to make it as painless as possible. Responding to questions about pending pesticide reporting legislation, Coba encouraged growers to convert reporting into a market advantage — but meanwhile to speak up to legislators to get the stuck bill moving. On the budget, Coba was reassuring, particularly about funding for Conservation Districts, but described deep reductions and was later joined by Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, who reiterated that “it’s not fun in Salem right now.” Advertisers Wieden + Kennedy of Portland will soon present a proposal for stepping up implementation of the long-discussed “Brand Oregon” program for marketing the state’s products. Port of Hood River Director Dave Harlan said plans are moving forward for an agricultural technology center, to be housed at Columbia Gorge Community College. And Coba responded positively to the Winter Pear Board’s request for collaboration.