Q-A with Katy Coba, Ag secretary: Oregon needs labor reform, Farm Bill

In many ways, 2012 was a banner year for Oregon agriculture, and that has set up a potentially strong encore in 2013. That’s the assessment of Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba as she reviews the past year and looks forward to the new one.

Coba has been ODA’s director for 10 years. Only two other ODA directors have served longer. Her optimism for both Oregon and U.S. agriculture is tempered with the reality that many challenges remain for farmers, ranchers, and others associated with this important industry sector.

Coba’s comments are part of an interview reviewing 2012 and previewing 2013, provided by the ODA.

In part one of the interview, she focuses on issues related to the agriculture industry as a whole:

Looking back on 2012, what kind of a year was it for Oregon agriculture?

I thought it was a great year overall. We’ll have to wait and see the official 2012 statistics once they are tabulated, but we learned that 2011 was a record year for Oregon agriculture, breaking the $5 billion mark in farmgate value.

For me, it is extraordinary how quickly agriculture was able to rebound from the recession in 2008 — which hit the industry very hard. Our nursery and greenhouse sector is recovering and we continue to be optimistic about the dairy sector.

Kudos to our farmers and ranchers for breaking that $5 billion mark. It’s very reflective of their resiliency and ability to go through tough times and come out the other end.

All indications are that 2012 was also a good year. The question is whether commodity prices stayed as strong as they were in 2011. We could have the same volume of production, but lower prices for some commodities. However, this is the season of annual meetings and one of my barometers for how things are going is what I hear as I meet with the various agriculture groups. The producers seem pretty happy with the way things are going, which is generally a very good sign.

What have been some of the shining stars for Oregon agriculture this past year?

Oregon blueberries have to be on that list. Oregon is the first and still the only state to be able to ship fresh blueberries into the South Korean market. While that was a small amount of the blueberries produced and sold from Oregon in 2012, all projections for blueberry production in Oregon in the next five years indicate it will grow quite significantly. I look at blueberries as a bellwether for Oregon berries in general.

Our grass seed industry is another sector that has really bounced back after struggling since 2008. Prices in 2012 were nearly at an all-time high for grass seed. A lot of that was due to record exports, particularly into China. There are several other sectors of Oregon agriculture that did very well in 2012, but blueberries and grass seed are two that stand out for me.

One of the key issues for agriculture throughout the nation continues to be a new U.S. Farm Bill. How do you see things playing out in the new year?

The Farm Bill negotiations got caught up in the fiscal cliff negotiations, which was not necessarily a good thing. There was a debate on whether Congress would agree to a one year extension, to give them a little bit more time to figure out what should be in the next five-year Farm Bill, versus those who wanted to pass a five-year Farm Bill now to provide certainty for U.S. agriculture. Now, with the passage of the fiscal cliff bill, portions of the 2008 Farm Bill have been extended for nine months.

The Farm Bill is very important for U.S. agriculture. There are many components that are important for Oregon agriculture — in particular funding of conservation programs. We take advantage of the conservation funding and it really fits hand in hand with work we are trying to do to improve water quality and to complete other on-the-ground conservation projects.

The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and the Market Access Program are key tools provided by the Farm Bill that we use as well for the benefit of Oregon agriculture. So I’m hopeful that Congress ultimately will get to a point in the next nine months where they agree on a new five-year Farm Bill moving forward. We have to have it.

What other national issues do you see emerging in 2013 that could impact Oregon agriculture?

As a result of the presidential election, there has been a lot of discussion at the federal level about whether now is the time for immigration reform. Can Congress come together and pass meaningful reform that I think we desperately need? It will be interesting to see if Congress does indeed address the issue.

As a component of that, we must be able to provide an adequate and stable work force, a labor supply for agriculture throughout the United States. If we want to be able to feed a growing world population, we’ve got to have labor in order to do the important work that has to be done.

What about the need for continued research and development?

I sense a growing realization by everyone that the world’s population is expected to reach as many as 9 billion by the year 2050 and the fact that global agricultural production can’t feed that population with our current technology.

Clearly, there is a lot of discussion about the continued need for investments in research and development so that agriculture can figure out ways to increase production without harming the environment, and basically be able to feed that growing demand for food in the coming decades.

We are in the same boat in Oregon. Research and development can help us figure out ways to do things that have less impact on the environment, yet allow us to increase production. That requires adequate funding to places like Oregon State University.

We’ve talked a lot about the budget struggles our agency has faced the last decade. OSU is in the same place, particularly for their agricultural research experiment stations and extension service. While OSU has worked hard to figure out new funding streams, industry has stepped up and made more of a commitment to funding research within the university system.

I think we will continue to see those pressures. We need to continue working together to figure out how to fund these critical needs into the future.

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In part two of the interview, which will be offered next week, Coba discusses issues specifically facing the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

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