When I was appointed director of this state’s Department of Agriculture in June 2015, I came from the water supply development world, where I’d had the opportunity to work with farmers, ranchers and others in the agriculture community.
Since then, I have come to appreciate the range and scope of WSDA’s role and services. Our work supports the strength and viability of an industry that’s a major driver for Washington’s economy. The $51 billion value of the agriculture and food industry represents 12 percent of the state’s economy.
WSDA’s 600 permanent staff (and more seasonally) are located across the state and organized in five direct customer service divisions, along with agency-support functions.
In a range of jobs such as inspectors, veterinarians and lab technicians, our employees:
▪ Inspect food for consumer safety.
▪ Register products and monitor the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
▪ Inspect fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds and plants.
▪ Ensure the integrity of organic labeling.
▪ Protect livestock and other animals from disease.
▪ Assure accuracy of weights and measures in commerce.
▪ Market our world-class agriculture products around the globe.
Our staff works consistently every day, carrying out our legal mandates and serving customers. Meanwhile, a few challenges are a high priority, appearing directly in our windshield right now.
For instance, we are ramping up to fight the threat of destructive insect pests. Tops on the list is the gypsy moth. This is the most damaging pest for trees, shrubs and forests ever introduced into North America. European gypsy moths have caused the loss of millions of acres of trees in the 20 Eastern states where it is established.
A few challenges are high priority, appearing directly in our windshield right now.
The Asian gypsy moth, not established anywhere in North America, spreads more quickly and feeds on a greater variety of trees, including evergreens.
WSDA is proposing a treatment plan for seven locations in Western Washington to keep this bad-news bug from getting a foothold here.
Another pest, the apple maggot, is a threat to this state’s apple industry, mostly located east of the Cascades. While WSDA supports green waste composting, we have a legal and economic obligation to ensure that this pest does not hitch rides across the state on municipal green waste, putting our No. 1 crop at risk. These are just two examples of invasive pests, whether they be insect, bacterial, fungal, etc., that we monitor for and help guard against.
Another top issue is the balancing act of maintaining water quality and the needs of farming operations. Crafting solutions will take understanding and respecting diverse interests, as well as developing and using best science.
Along with the immediate, pressing issues, we also take a long-term view, planning and preparing to keep our state’s agriculture viable and strong. This view falls generally into three dimensions: economics, natural resources and people.
Maintaining economic health means assuring and building market demand for state ag products. Through our trade efforts, we help promote a Washington brand identity that is nationally and internationally recognized, and in demand for its high-quality.
Another top issue is the balancing act of maintaining water quality and the needs of farming operations.
According to the Office of Financial Management, our state’s population is predicted to grow by about 2 million people in the next 25 years. That growth pressure drives increased competition for land and water resources. Assuring that our state’s urban and rural interests coexist takes public education about the value of each. WSDA is an advocate for the ag community, boosting positive understanding and a shared vision.
The average age of Washington’s farmer is 58, and our history of multigenerational family farming is threatened by changing demographics and economics. To keep farming from becoming endangered, it’s important to encourage and support young people, women, military veterans and others to view agriculture as a viable career.
Agriculture production relies on a work force predominately made up of Latino workers originating from Mexico. However, because of this work force aging, the lure of other industries, and a continuing decline in migration from Mexico, the supply of labor is diminishing.
Changes to the existing federal H-2A guest worker program and immigration can only be addressed at the federal level. At the same time, the state has an interest in making sure the industry has the workers needed to harvest, pack and process and that we respect their vital role.
Our bottom line is to pay attention to and value the wide variation of interests that affect Washington’s agricultural communities — large and small, rural and urban, east and west. WSDA is in a unique position to bring people together to work toward reasonable solutions for our future.