Katy Coba remains optimistic about Oregon agriculture
Economically and environmentally, Oregon agriculture will continue to play a key role in 2012 as the industry moves forward from itsstruggles of the past few years. Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba, entering her tenth year on the job, sees some positive signs that the state's diverse agricultural sector will generally do well in the new year, but cautions that plenty of challenges face farmers and ranchers over the next 12 months.
Director Coba's comments are part of an interview previewing the year 2012. In part one of the interview, she focuses on agricultural production and marketing:
As we head into 2012, do you have your usual sense of optimism for Oregon agriculture?
"Yes I do. Part of it is because we've weathered an incredible [economic] storm and are starting to see signs the industry is coming out the other side. In specific commodity sectors, we're seeing a lot of opportunity. So I'm optimistic for 2012 and hope that all of Oregon agriculture can see improvements."
What are some of the bright spots in Oregon agriculture production?
"Certainly in our top categories, you have to mention wheat. For growers, it has been a pretty long time, relatively speaking, that the price has been very good. Prices have dipped a little bit, but Oregon wheat producers have to be feeling pretty good about how things are going. Hay is another commodity with a price that is just through the roof right now, which makes hay growers happy but makes livestock producers not so happy. We are seeing very low numbers of beef cattle inventories across the US. Of course, that has driven the price up, even in these down economic times. So I think our beef producers are feeling pretty good about things. You also have to mention blueberries. We've seen a lot of growth on the production side and now we're going to see some expansion on the market side that will lead to some real opportunities for our blueberry growers."
Do you see a brighter future for some commodities that have struggled the past few years?
"Yes, I do. Specifically for nursery and grass seed- the sectors probably hit the hardest by the economic downturn because of their ties to the construction industry- we are starting to see some upward trends in the market. With grass seed, we are starting to see the inventories that had built up now being reduced and almost eliminated in some cases. Hopefully, even for these sectors that have really been hit hard, we will continue to see an upturn in 2012."
What challenges producers might producers face in 2012?
"If you talk to Oregon farmers and ranchers, as always, they have concerns about regulations and duplication of regulatory agencies. That concern is clearly going to continue. There is a lot of national focus on environmental regulations. Some of those are being tapered or will not be moving forward. But it has raised enough concern that producers are on edge right now, and understandably so. Even so, we have cases of regulation that are going through- a brand new NPDES permit for aerial applications of pesticides on, over, or near water. That's very frustrating for growers. From an Oregon Department of Agriculture perspective, it makes the job of reaching out and helping producers meet regulations even more important, even if they are our own regulations- making sure we're trying to implement them in a way that's flexible, workable on the ground, and not creating any more challenges to our producers than they currently have."
When it comes to marketing, I'm sure you haven't budged from your "three-legged stool" approach, have you? (Oregon agriculture needs local, domestic, and international markets).
"No, and I would say two of the three legs are really rockin' and rollin' right now. Clearly, [one is] the interest and heightened desire for all things local. We see it everywhere we turn. It really started at the restaurant level, but we're seeing it at the grocery store level and, of course, venues such as farmers' markets. People want to know where their food comes from, they want to know how it's grown, and they want to support their local farmer and rancher- which is a good thing. Sometimes getting our local products into a local market can be a bit of a challenge. But there is a lot of interest, particularly at the federal level, to figure out a way to facilitate allowing local products to stay in the local market. Then you've got the farm to school program, which in Oregon, is just a huge success. We're hoping to see other opportunities, such as farm to hospital or other local market venues that can really help local farmers and ranchers."
"The other leg doing well is the international market. International exports for US agriculture reached an all time high this past year and we expect that trend to continue. Right now, opportunities for Oregon into Asia, because of our proximity to that market, seem to be endless. In particular, the recent ratification of the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement means that South Korea is definitely a renewed focus for us at ODA, working with the industry, to get Oregon products into that market. They love what we produce and the more we can do there as tariffs are ratcheted down, the greater the opportunities. And, there is the recent blueberry agreement-Oregon being the first and only state to be allowed to ship fresh blueberries into South Korea. We'll start to ship in 2012 and are working hard now to set up the mechanisms to be successful in getting our product into Korea."
Are there any newly emerging markets to watch in the next year?
"The one that jumps to mind is Vietnam. We were just there on a mission with the Oregon and Washington potato commissions. Oregon agriculture, at least from ODA's standpoint, has not been real active in that country. Washington, with it's apples, has a little more experience. It's a new market opportunity we are trying to explore, and there may be some good options for our agriculture. Fresh potatoes have dipped their toe in first, but I think there are other Oregon products that we'd like to see if they can be successful in Vietnam."
In part two of the interview, which will be offered next week, Director Coba discusses food safety, environmental issues, the 2012 US Farm Bill, and ODA's role in serving its customers.
For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.
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