Despite some unique challenges cropping up the past 12 months, Oregon agriculture generally remains in great shape and is poised to do well again in 2014, according to Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Coba, approaching her 12th year as director, remains optimistic about the opportunities facing the state’s farmers, ranchers, and others.
Coba’s comments are part of an interview assessing Oregon agriculture and ODA. In part one of the interview, she focuses on issues related to the agriculture industry as a whole:
What kind of year was 2013 for Oregon agriculture?
I would say 2013 was an interesting year. We had a number of events that pressed the industry and the department, and we worked together to address those issues. I’m hopeful 2014 is a little more normal. Looking from the production side of Oregon agriculture in 2013, it was another record year with about $5.4 billion in production value. We have just been blessed, in general, with good weather. We saw market prices that are holding firm. We continue to see that steady growth coming out of the economic downturn in 2008. Most of the sectors of agriculture are really doing well. That’s what we like to see. We hope that trend continues in 2014.
What was the most challenging issue for Oregon agriculture this past year?
The discovery of genetically modified wheat in an Oregon field was definitely a very tense and trying time for the wheat industry, for ODA, for USDA, and for our neighboring states. It was particularly challenging because a couple of key export markets in Asia do not accept GM crops. When it’s a federal investigation, there is a lot of information that cannot be shared, or there is information that can be shared with a state agency but not with our growers. That was frustrating for our growers. We just tried to maintain as much communication as we could. In hindsight, the whole discovery and investigation went as well as we could hope. The focus was on getting the Asian markets back open. It was just a very short period of time when the markets were closed. So far, shipments of our wheat to Asia are moving and prices are holding steady. The incident was a huge challenge for us and has raised to the next level the whole focus around genetically engineered agricultural products.
What do you see happening in 2014 with the issue of genetically modified organisms?
The genetically engineered discussion is not going away. Because of the measure in Jackson County that will be on the ballot in May, and because of the legislation that passed during the September special session providing a statewide preemption of any local regulation of genetically engineered products — with the exception of Jackson County — the governor signed the bill but agreed to pull together a task force to look at a potential statewide policy or if there should be statewide regulation of genetically engineered agriculture. That work is going to start in January. There will be a focused and concentrated effort on this discussion. This isn’t only happening in Oregon. It’s happening at the national level, it’s happening in other states. There is the issue of required GM labeling of foods — we’ve seen initiatives in California and Washington be defeated. We are waiting to see if a similar initiative will be filed in Oregon. There is discussion at the national level on whether there should be national labeling of genetically engineered products. This, I would say, is going to be the number-one topic we will see related to agriculture in 2014.
What other high-profile issues do you expect to see in the new year?
Pesticides would be another key issue. There is continued concern in the Triangle Lake area of Lane County about aerial applications of pesticides and the ongoing state and federal investigation to see if there is some kind of human health impacts related to the use of pesticides in that area. The issue has also been raised in other communities, most recently Curry County, where concerned citizens have now petitioned the federal government to come in and do a similar analysis. It’s a very difficult and emotional issue. There are some that believe passionately that pesticides are dangerous to your health, even though science often times shows a different outcome. From an industry perspective, we have to be sensitive to the public. We have to make sure we are using our tools in the right way. We have to be vigilant in making sure that is happening. I would say, for the most part, industry does that. But we also have to be sensitive to our neighbors. If we have concerns like these that are raised and we are not being sensitive or not addressing them, I think it’s a detriment to the industry.
What key ag issues do you see Congress and federal officials addressing in 2014?
The Farm Bill, are we ever going to get one? That’s the big question. We saw, for the first time, a democratically controlled senate and a republican controlled house at the federal level that basically ripped the Farm Bill apart. It appears, due to late negotiations in 2013, there may be something close to a compromise whereby the Farm Bill can go forward. We have gone just about as far as we can in agriculture without one. For us, in Oregon, the support of specialty crops, the research component, and the conservation title are all very important. We just have to get a bill passed.
Immigration reform is another thing that I would put on my wish list for 2014. It seems like we’ve come close a number of times. Now, who knows? The other federal issue I would raise is the Food Safety Modernization Act. FDA has now put out five draft rules. ODA has been instrumental in a national coalition providing comments on those rules. Food safety is incredibly important. No grower wants to be the one whose product has caused illness among consumers. We are united on doing everything we can to prevent food borne illness. The trick is in the how and getting that nailed down correctly. That’s been the big challenge. So we’ll continue to pay a lot of attention to those efforts in 2014.
In part two of the interview, which will be offered next week, Coba discusses key issues specifically facing ODA.